Atlanta Braves Pitching Prospect Spencer Strider Nerds Out on His Arsenal

Spencer Strider is a pitching nerd. He’s also a promising prospect putting up stellar numbers in his first professional season. Drafted in the fourth round last year out of Clemson University, the 22-year-old right-hander has a sparkling 1.50 ERA in six starts split between Low-A Augusta and High-A Rome. Moreover, he’s overpowering hitters to the tune of 14 hits allowed and 44 strikeouts in 24 innings.

Strider — No. 22 on our Atlanta Braves Top Prospects list — nerded out about his repertoire, and the evolution of his approach, prior to last night’s game.

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David Laurila: Tell me about yourself as a pitcher. How do you get guys out?

Spencer Strider: “I believe in attacking the zone and putting the game in the hitters’ hands. Whether you’re throwing 50 [mph] and can’t throw a strike, or you’re throwing 101 and spotting up like Jacob deGrom, the hitters have to deal with whatever you give them. The statistics show that’s going to work in your favor the vast majority of the time.

“I’ve also come to learn a lot about my fastball. At the end of college we were able to get more more data and metrics on it, and I understood the concept of vertical break, how spin is helpful, and everything else that’s part of the vernacular now. I’ve focused on pitching to the top half of the zone, where it’s most difficult to hit a good rising fastball. Most of my attention over the last few months has been working on a breaking ball that complements that fastball use, something with more vertical depth at a high velocity.”

Laurila: For years, pitchers tended to tell me that they pitch to contact. Now it’s more common for them to say they’re trying to miss bats. Where do you stand?

Strider: “I’m definitely trying to miss bats. That’s the best outcome. I want to give myself the best chance of being successful, and if a guy swings-and-misses, I can’t be hurt by that. If I can pitch in a way that guarantees me more swings-and-misses, that helps remove the possibility of bad outcomes.

“I think a lot of guys have a misunderstanding of their stuff, or how they’re supposed to be pitching. They can be afraid of going to a place in the zone that gives them the most swings, and to me, that’s the middle part of the zone — just above the belt. Some hitters say that’s where they want the ball, and there’s this perception that that’s where pitches get hit the hardest. But it isn’t necessarily true. It depends on what you’re throwing at them, and with my fastball, that’s where I need to live. I get a ton of swings-and-misses in that part of the zone.”

Laurila: Does deception play a role in that, or it is mostly just ride and/or velocity?

Strider: “It’s a combination. I always tell people to look up… a guy like Jacob deGrom, for instance. I mean, the spin on his fastball is very correlated to his velocity. He’s not spinning the ball at some absurd rate. I think it’s somewhere in 2,400 [rpm] range, which for a fastball at 99.2 [mph] is pretty normal. I think a lot of what helps him is the ease of the delivery, the extension — things that aren’t specific to the baseball.

“Myself, hitters say that they can’t pick up the ball until it’s out of my hand, because my arm action hides it behind me. My delivery is pretty calm until the end, so that makes it hard for them to get on time. So I like to think it’s a 50/50 mix between the ball metrics and deception.”

Laurila: Where is your arm angle?

Strider: “I’m about a true three-quarters, and I’ve shortened my arm action since college. I used to be very long and the ball would pop out behind me; you could kind of keep track of where it was. My delivery was… not smoother, but there was an easier cadence to pick up. Now it’s a little bit choppier, in a way that creates just enough deception.”

Laurila: Who is responsible for that?

Strider: “Mostly myself. I had TJ my sophomore year at Clemson, and at that point I was able to kind of do a mechanical overhaul. Combine that with the fact that I’d just found out that I should be throwing four-seamers at the top of the zone… the changes I made were sort of catered to that. I took from guys like Trevor Bauer and Gerrit Cole, guys who are throwing four-seam fastballs 60-plus percent of the time.

“I had thrown two-seams my entire life, because I thought movement was a good thing, and I knew that two-seams move more. I didn’t have any data to back up whether mine was actually good or not. Sometimes it moved, sometimes it didn’t. I always threw hard, so I would get swings-and-misses on a two-seam, but not necessarily because it was moving; I was simply beating guys. Sometimes that was with two-seams [up in the zone] unintentionally.

“When we got a TrackMan put into the stadium at Clemson, we noticed that my spin rate was high, so we changed to a four-seam. We tinkered around with that and it jumped a little more, with a ton of vertical movement. That was when the decision was made that I need to be throwing four-seams.”

Laurila: What are the metrics on your four?

Strider: “It’s 100 spin efficiency — the axis is always inside of one o’clock, right about 12:45 to 12:55 — and then my average vertical movement… I don’t know what it is for the entire season, but I know it’s in-between 18 at the low end on average, and 21 on average at the high end. Some of them, I’ll throw up to 25 — they just shoot up in the sky — but I don’t really know how that happens.

“My spin has come back since TJ. Last season, which was my first season off of Tommy John, it was hanging out around 2,100-2,200. I was a little concerned, but then as my velo ticked up — I’ve been averaging about 96-97 [mph] on my fastball — it’s now sitting about 2,400.”

Laurila: Is your breaking ball a curveball or a slider?

Strider: “We — by ‘we’ I mean pitching development with the Braves — decided in spring training that there’s this pitch a few guys throw, like Luke Jackson, or Garrett Richards with Boston. It’s almost a curve, but it’s so hard that it limits the depth, in the negative-six range. And if it’s 85-plus, and negative six, it gets no contact whatsoever. They call it ‘the death pitch.’

“They said, ‘You know, you’re averaging high-90s on your fastball; you could be throwing this slider/curve/power curve, whatever you want to call it.’ So I don’t really think of it in a category, like a slider or curveball. I want to throw a hard, vertical breaking ball, and then call it whatever it does. I’m still working on it, so it hasn’t been particularly consistent, and sometimes it’s a little more curveball-ish, and sometimes it’s a little more slider-ish.”

Laurila: What about your changeup?

Strider: “I’ve been working on that as well, and it’s kind of the same thing. I’ve always had a pretty good changeup, but we decided it would be best if I could divert all of my focus onto the breaking ball as my secondary for now. When I start to throw it again, I don’t care how it gets there, or what I do to throw it, I just want it to be slower and something off my fastball. Whatever it does, I’ll call it what it is.”

Laurila: That said, how would you describe your changeup?

Spencer Strider’s changeup grip.

Strider: “In the many tinkerings, I have found a few things that — regardless of the rest of the grip — seem to be universal. That is, I supinate my wrist in my glove before I even throw the pitch. As I bring my hand out of my glove, that forces me to pronate earlier and harder. What I want to do on a changeup is turn it over. And then I bring my pinky up closer to my ring finger, because I don’t want it to prevent the ball from coming out of the right side of my hand and be too influenced by my index finger. So my middle finger rides right on the horseshoe, right on the seam, and that’s my leverage point. My ring finger just sits on the ball along with my pinky, so the ball can come out that way. My index finger at that point sort of acts like… it does touch my thumb, kind of like a circle, but only to keep the ball from going out of my hand that way.”

Laurila: What type of movement does that give you?

Strider: “Very vertical movement.”

Laurila: Yet you’re not really throwing it…

Strider: “I haven’t thrown it this year at all. Like I said, we’ve kind of put it on the shelf to focus on the breaking ball. And as we’ve changed the approach with my breaking ball… I used to throw a true curve that was very slow and had a lot of depth, and I was working on a cutter/slider — something hard. We kind of morphed the two and got to the hard, vertical power curve — again, whatever you want to call it — and as I’ve gotten more of a feel for it, I’ve realized that my changeup also needs to have vertical depth, rather than more horizontal movement.

“I’ve been able to throw changeups that run a ton. The changeup I threw in college would run from one side of the plate to the other. But that doesn’t really play with my arsenal. What I need is something that goes down and is just slower than my fastball. I don’t think it’s going to be a pitch that I throw 20% of the time; I think it’s going to be a five-to-10 percent, like the way Gerrit Cole uses his changeup. His breaking ball, just like mine, is going to be the number-one secondary.”

Laurila: How fastball-heavy have you been this year?

Strider: “Very. I think in my first outing I was 90-something percent fastballs. The second was 70 something, and then we started working in the breaking ball more. I’d say I’m sitting 65-70% fastball.

Spencer Strider’s fastball grip.

“Like I said, I want to attack hitters, and I have a good fastball that plays well, so there are times I don’t feel a need to throw anything but fastballs. Of course, for developmental reasons I’ve got to work a breaking ball in there, and eventually a changeup. But I think I’m always going to be a 60-plus percent fastball guy.”

Laurila: Let’s jump back to your breaking ball. Can you say more about how you throw it?

Strider: “Like I said, it’s got more vertical depth than a slider, but I need to throw it hard like a slider. So the grip has been tough. I’ve been able to spin a breaking ball pretty well, but not fast. The trouble for me has been finding a grip and a release point that allows me to still influence the ball — the front half of the ball — to create topspin, but not slow down my arm or my hand.

Spencer Strider’s breaking ball grip.

“I actually modeled my grip a little bit off of Luke Jackson. He throws his 87 on average, with negative-seven, negative-six. Granted, he’s a taller guy with a higher release slot. But he’s got space in between the ball in his hands. It’s coming right out of the fingertips of his index and middle finger, and he’s sort of a hybrid spike. He’s not fully spiked with his index finger. It’s about a third of the way up from his middle finger. That’s kind of where I’m at.

“I mentioned that I supinate my changeup. I don’t supinate my breaking ball, but I do think about keeping the wrist turned in, and my thumb almost pointed upwards — the knuckle of my thumb pointed upwards so that when I come through, the hand is aligned with my wrist at release. There’s a straight line just like a fastball. But now my pinkie is pointed closer towards home plate, so I’m in front of the ball at release with my index and middle fingers.”

Laurila: What type of spin do you get on it?

Strider: “It’s anywhere from seven to eight o’clock when it’s where I want it to be. Sometimes I’ll throw a gyro at nine — that’s a good pitch that hangs out around zero to positive-two. But when I’m getting the negative vertical movement that I want, it’s inside of eight o’clock. The spin rate has been up to 2,700 in very small samples. Normally it hangs at around 2,400-2,500.

“We’ve actually had kind of an epiphany. We’ve been chasing this positive 85-or-more, and negative-six or more, and realized that in order to get that much depth at a high velocity, I have to throw it positive out of my hand. In other words, there has to be a hump so that the pitch has time to get that much negative depth. That’s because I’m only six feet tall [and 201 pounds] and throw from a three-quarters arm slot. I’m not Tyler Glasnow, or even Luke Jackson or Gerrit Cole. Those are all taller guys who throw from a higher arm slot, so they’re able to throw this pitch straight down with a negative release out of their hand and still get that depth. For me, it’s probably best that I chased the velocity 85-plus, and the rate at about negative-four instead of negative-six.”





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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weidnerp4

Great interview.