The Braves starting pitching has been far from ideal so far in 2022. Early exists for both Max Fried and Ian Anderson in the Reds series, plus a three-inning stinker by Huascar Ynoa on Monday night against the Nationals, has Atlanta in a bit of a bind. So, as a result, the team made some changes on Tuesday, leading up to Game 2 of its series versus Washington.
Yep, that’s right, folks. Prospect Bryce Elder will make his anticipated (though a bit surprising) MLB debut tonight at Truist Park, as the Braves look to salvage what has already been a heavily-used bullpen so far this season.
What should we expect from Elder? Well, any time a kid pitches his first game in The Show it’s exciting. For me, it brings back memories from once upon a time when former Braves prospect (and fellow Bryce, but with an “s”) made his debut – a Sept. 20 outing against the Pirates in which Bryse Wilson tossed a three-hitter over five innings to not only complete a successful first big league start but also earn the win. Hell yeah, if Elder can pitch even close to that well on Tuesday night, than I’d most certainly call the move a success for the Braves, especially considering the terrible luck the team’s rotation has experienced during the season’s first five games. Innings, innings and innings. Atlanta just needs innings.
But I’m of the belief that Elder can provide a little more than simply innings for the Braves tonight. Remember, this is a top-tier prospect starting pitcher we’re talking about. One that, after getting picked in the fifth-round of the 2020 MLB Draft, has absolutely dominated all four levels of the minor leagues, including a stingy 2.21 ERA and 9.8 strikeouts per nine with Triple-A Gwinnett last season. Sure, the sample size is a bit small. No matter how talented he’s supposed to be, Elder has only tallied 137 2/3 innings as a pro pitcher. But hell, the less than 100 professional innings accrued by Spencer Strider heading into 2022 hasn’t seemed to faze him thus far… so I’m not going to automatically assume such greenness will impact Elder either.
The truth is, we haven’t seen such a crisp prospect starter in the Braves system since probably Ian Anderson, who except for a poor five-start showing in Triple-A (6.57 ERA) the year before he debuted (2019), never once struggled to get minor league hitters out. Anderson ended his apprenticeship in the minors with a sparkling 2.94 ERA and 10.8 K/9 in 392 1/3 overall innings. Elder so far? Well, he’s right there with his soon-to-be big league rotation mate, as the youngster sports a career 2.75 ERA to go along with 10.1 K/9.
But enough about the stats. Although Elder’s numbers are certainly impressive, what’s on paper is hardly important at this point. Regardless of how low his minor league ERA currently sits or how many punch outs he can rack up per nine, the kid is starting a friggin major league game tonight – a day after Washington’s lineup busted out with 11 runs from 15 hits versus Atlanta’s pitchers, featuring big boys like Nelson Cruz, Juan Soto and Josh Bell. I’ll promise you, those three guys could care less how great Elder has been versus Triple-A batters. He’ll have to be on his A game for sure.
Elder is considered a true four-pitch pitcher, though it’s also been noted that neither of those four offerings are considered “plus”. He’s not a crazy-hard thrower either, with a two-seam fastball that sits around 92 MPH to go along with a trio of secondary pitches, including two breaking balls and a changeup. While in the minors he’s what you’d probably call a “power pitcher”, hence the 10+ strikeouts per nine, though tonight’s game plan for Elder shouldn’t be about generating swings and misses, but more about inducing weak contact and groundballs. Those are the realistic results that can allow him to potentially make it through five or six innings on Tuesday, and I have a feeling Braves pitching coach Rick Kranitz is going to be telling the 22-year-old just that. And by all accounts, Elder is plenty capable of executing, it’s just a matter of whether or not he’ll be able to maintain his nerves and consistently do it.
In the end, though, Atlanta doesn’t need a 7-inning gem from the kid. Tonight’s start is all about salvaging a Braves bullpen that has been forced to work a whopping 12 1/3 innings over the last two contests. Bryce with an “s” was able to do it four seasons ago, we’ll see if Elder can pull it off in a few hours. Either way, you can’t help but be excited for the kid.
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