Sunday Notes: Bryce Elder Has a Sinking Fastball and Is Long Off the Tee

Figuratively speaking, Bryce Elder is pitching well under par. In 21 starts for the Atlanta Braves, the 24-year-old right-hander is 8-2 with a 3.18 ERA. Killing worms is his M.O. Relying heavily on a modified two-seamer, Elder has a 53.6% ground-ball rate that ranks fifth-best among qualified hurlers. Earlier this month, he was named an N.L. All-Star in his first full big-league season.

When he’s not sinking fastballs, he’s sinking putts. Atlanta’s fifth-round pick in the 2020 draft, the University of Texas product is an accomplished golfer who shoots in the mid-to-low 70s. More on that in a moment.

Elder learned his sinker late in his freshman year of college. He’d thrown a four-seamer in high school, but lacking plus velocity — his heater was, and remains, in the 90-mph range — an adjustment was in order. His pitching coach showed him a one-seam grip, he threw a few off the mound, and the dividends soon became apparent.

The improvement was evident in the numbers. The Decatur, Texas native had a 5.55 ERA as a four-seam freshman. As a one-seam sophomore, he had a 2.93 ERA. As a junior — this in the truncated COVID season — that number was 2.08. Success in pro ball followed, but stagnation was never part of the plan. In a continued effort to get better, the righty subsequently tweaked his sinker grip.

“I’ve rotated the ball to where it is closer to a traditional two-seam,” explained Elder, who is throwing his signature pitch 51.2% of the time. “It’s a little offset. I’m on the side of the railroad tracks and kind of pulling on the inside of the ball. I try to get it spinning with a tilted axis, just straight back. That’s what makes the seam-shifted push.”

Elder primarily augments his go-to pitch with a slider (36.0% usage), mixing in the occasional changeup (12.8%). He learned his breaking ball, which was originally taught to him as a cutter, when he was eight years old. A few years later, he walked away from the game.

“I played baseball until about the sixth grade, but then got burned out on it and quit,” said Elder. “I had a few buddies who were good at golf, so I did that instead. I played all the way up through high school and actually wanted to play college golf, but then I ended up playing baseball again my sophomore year. The coach let me come to the field and throw, then leave to go play golf. If he hadn’t allowed me do that, I wouldn’t have played. You hear stories where guys say, ‘If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here.’ That’s literally what it was for me. If it wasn’t for my high school baseball coach — his name is Brian Tickell — I wouldn’t be here.”

Asked to elaborate on “burned out,” Elder explained that his summer travel-ball team played a busy schedule, this while his his friends were going to the lake and hanging out. There was another reason, as well.

“I was horrible at hitting,” Elder admitted. “I loved pitching, but I hated hitting.”

That love never left him — it’s what brought him back to baseball — and all these years later it melds with his other sporting pursuit.

“I’ve always liked the idea of pitching, because it’s just like golf,” Elder said. “You go one pitch at a time, and one shot at a time. You also know what you’re going to do leading up to that pitch, or to that shot. On the golf course, you know that you want to drive to a certain side of the fairway, because that way you’ll have a better approach to the green. Baseball is the same. I’m going to throw this pitch, because it sets up this next pitch. The two go hand in hand.”

The 6-foot-2, 220-pound righty is more about finesse than power on the mound. On the golf course, he’s a bit of both.

“I can’t hit a golf ball as far as some guys, but I can usually get it out there 300-320 [yards],” said Elder. “I can hit it a little off the tee, but overall I’d say I’m kind of crafty.”

Crafty — a crafty technician if you will — is exactly what Elder is on a baseball diamond. He needs to be — his velocity ranks in the ninth percentile — but he’s perfectly fine with that. For him, an inning is much the same as a par-four hole.

“It’s all about executing pitches,” said Elder. “I’m not going to blow guys away, so I need to command the zone and be smart out there. Again, it’s a lot like golf. It’s one pitch at a time, one shot at a time.”

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Sam Mele went 7 for 9 against Don Black.

Mark Teixeira went 10 for 14 against Nick Blackburn.

Jose Offerman went 8 for 12 against Jack McDowell.

Amos Otis went 8 for 13 against Sam McDowell.

Oddibe McDowell went 16 for 39 against Mike Moore.

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Nolan Jones hit a 472-foot walk-off home run against the San Diego Padres on June 11, and just a few days earlier he bludgeoned a baseball 483 feet in a game against the San Francisco Giants. With those Coors Field blasts in mind, I had a question for the Rockies bopper when Colorado came to Boston the following week: Could he imagine reaching the red-painted seat that commemorates the longest home run ever hit at Fenway Park?

“Absolutely not,” was his emphatic reply. “Not even close. I’ve taken BP here four or five times now and haven’t come within 20 rows. I don’t think I could get it there from second base.”

Ted Williams purportedly reached the deep-in-the-right-field-bleachers locale, 502 feet from home plate, in 1946. Does the 25-year-old power hitter question the veracity of Teddy Ballgame’s feat?

“No,” said Jones. “Why would they lie?”

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A quiz:

Which player hit for the highest average in a season where he didn’t win the batting title? (A hint: The player is not in the Hall of Fame, while that year’s batting champ is in the Hall of Fame.)

The answer can be found below.

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NEWS NOTES

Jake Peavy and John Moores were formally inducted into the San Diego Padres Hall of Fame on Friday. Moores was the team’s owner from 1994-2012. Peavy pitched for the Padres from 2002-2009, winning 92 games and capturing the NL Cy Young award in 2007.

Mike Ivie, a corner infielder who player for four teams in a career that spanned the 1971-1983 seasons, died a week ago Friday at age 70. Drafted first overall out of an Atlanta high school by the San Diego Padres in 1970, Ivie slashed a combined .296/.361/.515 with a 141 wRC+ for the San Francisco Giants in 1978-1979.

Larry Ray, an outfielder who played in five games for the Houston Astros in 1982, died last week at age 65 (per Baseball Player Passings). The Madison, Indiana native recorded his lone big-league hit against Tom Niedenfuer.

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The answer to the quiz is Shoeless Joe Jackson, who batted .408 in 1911. Ty Cobb batted .419.

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Miami Marlins third base coach Jody Reed incurred a fractured right leg when he was struck by a line drive a week ago Wednesday. Not long beforehand, I’d asked the erstwhile infielder about the first of the 27 home runs he hit in his 11-year big-league playing career. To my surprise, he shared recollections of dingers from ensuing seasons.

“My first one wasn’t consequential, “ Reed said of his home run off of John Farrell in a 9-5 Red Sox win over Cleveland on June 27, 1988. “But there are two I’d say are fairly memorable. One was at Fenway against the Angels (on April 26, 1990). It was the ninth inning, a tie ballgame, and Bryan Harvey was on the mound. I was waiting to hit, and a scout came down from the stands and told me that the scout he was sitting next to had said, ’Harvey better be careful here; Reed can turn on it pretty good.’ I ended up hitting a home run to win the ballgame.’

The other one was in San Diego, at Jack Murphy< Stadium. This is probably the only time I ever did this. I got to a 3-0 count, Bruce Bochy gave me the take sign, and I looked into the dugout and gave him a “I want to hit here.’ I was seeing the ball really well that night. He kind of went, ‘OK, go ahead.’ I don’t remember who we were playing, but I hit the next pitch for a home run.”

Reed hit four runs at Jack Murphy Stadium with Bochy as his manager, and three of them came in the first inning. By process of elimination, his seeing-the-ball-well home run on a 3-0 count presumably came off of Pete Harnisch in the fifth inning of an 8-4 Padres win over the Mets on June 9, 1995.

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FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Roki Sasaki was diagnosed with a left oblique muscle tear and, per reports, is likely to miss the remainder of the NPB season. The 21-year-old Chiba Lotte Marines right-hander is 7-2 with a 1.48 ERA and 130 strikeouts in 85 innings.

Nori Aoki was taken off the field on a stretcher after being hit in the head by a pitch earlier this week (per @JballAllen). The 41-year-old former MLB outfielder subsequently returned to action and propelled a pinch-hit three run homer for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows on Friday.

The NPB’s Chunichi Dragons announced on Wednesday that they’ve signed Michael Feliz. Released by the New York Yankees two days prior, the 30-year-old right-handed reliever, has a 5.29 ERA to go with a 17-9 record and one save over 228 MLB appearances.

Willians Astudillo hit his first NPB home run last Sunday. The 31-year-old former Minnesota Twin and Miami Marlin is slashing .135/.220/.243 in 41 plate appearances with the SoftBank Hawks. He earlier slashed .304/.343/.466 in 99 plate appearances with SoftBank’s minor-league affiliate.

Erick Fedde continues to be one of the top pitchers in Korea. The 30-year-old former Washington Nationals hurler is 14-2 with a 1.74 over 17 starts with the NC Dinos. He tossed seven scoreless innings in his most recent outing for the KBO club.

The Boston Red Sox signed 18-year-old right-hander Lee Chan-sol for a reported $300,000 earlier this week. The Seoul native was expected to be a first-round pick in the forthcoming KBO draft.

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Reading Fightin’ Phils manager Al Pedrique — quoted in a recent Sunday Notes column addressing since-promoted-to-the-big-leagues outfielder Johan Rojas — was once a big-league infielder. Primarily a shortstop, Pedrique played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Detroit Tigers, and New York Met from 1987-1989. His managers over that three-year span were no slouches. Sparky Anderson, Davey Johnson, and Jim Leyland combined for 65 seasons at the helm.

I asked the baseball lifer about the illustrious trio prior to a game in Portland, Maine.

“Sparky Anderson was more of an old-school guy, but he found a way to get the most ability out of his players,” said Pedrique. “He was a great communicator. Jim Leyland was a great communicator. as well. Jim Leyland was more emotional. He really spent time getting to know his players. Davey Johnson was similar. Davey was very loose and would let you play the game. One thing I liked about all three guys was that they taught you about the game. They talked about baseball.”

Pedrique had an MLB managerial stint of his own, albeit a brief one. Hired on an interim basis after Arizona fired Bob Brenly in July 2004, he oversaw the remainder of a franchise-worst 111-loss D-Backs season. That October, Bob Melvin was subsequently hired to run the club.

“I wish I’d have had an opportunity to have a team right from spring training,” Pedrique said of his short time as a big-league skipper. “It never came true, but I have no regrets. I got a chance to manage players like Randy Johnson, Luis Gonzalez… I could go on with the list. They were true professionals. That helped me become a better person and a better baseball man.”

Pedrique is his 17th season as a minor-league manager. Counting his short stint with the Snakes, his career record is 1,000-900.

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FARM NOTES

Chandler Simpson leads the minors with 75 stolen bases. Drafted in the second round last year by the Tampa Bay Rays out of Georgia Tech, the 22-year-old outfielder is slashing .291/.359/.338 with a 105 wRC+ for the Low-A Charleston RiverDogs. He’s been caught stealing 12 times.

Ripken Reyes has reached base a most-in-the-minors 35 times via HBP. The 26-year-old infielder/outfielder in the San Diego Padres system is slashing .272/.427/.373 with a 128 wRC+ for the Double-A San Antonio Missions. The University of San Diego product was a 30th-round pick in 2019.

Bobby Dalbec is slashing .293/.399/.626 with a 148 wRC+ and 25 home runs in 321 plate appearances with the Triple-A Worcester Red Sox. The 28-year-old corner infielder has 14 plate appearances with Boston this season.
Vaughn Grissom is slashing .322/.397/.477 with a 120 wRC+ in 342 plate appearances for the Triple-A Gwinnett Stripers. The 22-year-old middle infielder had a 70 wRC+ in 70 plate appearances with the Atlanta Braves before being sent down on May 7.

Cooper McKeehan is 7-1 with 11 saves and a 1.16 ERA in 46-and-two-thirds innings for the Low-A Columbia Fireflies. Drafted in the 16th round last year by the Kansas City Royals out of Brigham Young University, the 22-year-old left-hander has a 68.5% ground ball rate, the highest in the minors among pitchers who have thrown 30 or more innings.

Yadiel Batista has fanned 31 batters and issue just one free pass in 27 innings with the St. Louis Cardinals’ Dominican Summer League entry. The 19-year-old southpaw was signed out of Cuba in March of this year.

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I ran a Twitter poll yesterday afternoon asking which of three pitchers hit the most unlikely home run in big-league history. The results were predictable, but they were also questionable. Bartolo Colon garnered 65.3% of the votes cast, while Rick Camp got 14.0%, and Mickey Lolich just 7.4%. (A fourth option, “other,” got 13.2%.)
Each of the home runs was the only one the player hit in his career. Here are the circumstances:

Colon, who had 25 hits while slashing .084/.092/.107 in 326 career plate appearances, was 42 years old when he went deep in a 6-3 New York Mets win over the San Diego Padres on May 7, 2016.

Camp, who had 13 hits in 107 career plate appearances while slashing .074/.109/.114, homered on an 0-2 pitch to tie the game with two out in the bottom of the 18th inning in an eventual 16-13 Atlanta Braves loss to the Mets on July 4, 1985,

Lolich, who had 90 hits — just seven for extra bases — in 1.017 regular season plate appearances while slashing .110/.215/.121, homered for the Detroit Tigers in Game 2 of the 1968 World Series.

In my opinion, Colon’s ranked as the third most unlikely. As for the other two… good question. I’d lean Lolich given the number of plate appearances and it being the World Series, but Camp’s was pretty amazing. They all were, of course.

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

The St.Louis Post-Dispatch’s Lynn Worthy wrote about eventful-and-controversial first inning of Thursday’s Cardinals-Cubs game.

Does Mark Vientos have a future with the Mets? Allison Waxman explored that question at Metsmerized Online.

Olivia Pichardo became the first woman to homer in a New York wood bat league, and Matt Monagan told us about it at MLB.com.

Royals Review’s Bradford Lee looked back at Gene Tenace’s underrated career.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Kansas City Royals starters Zack Greinke and Jordan Lyles are a combined 2-23 this season. Baltimore Orioles relievers Mike Baumann and Felix Bautista are a combined 12-1.

Jeff McNeil is slashing .340/.397/.469 in 286 career plate appearances versus the Washington Nationals. He is slashing .333/.373/.491 in 244 plate appearances versus the Atlanta Braves.

Juan Soto is slashing .331/.497/.644 in 314 career plate appearances versus the Atlanta Braves. He is slashing .348/.483/..696 versus the Cincinnati Reds.

Cameron Maybin went 16-for-32 with the Florida Marlins in 2008. He went 1-for-28 with the New York Mets in 2021.

Most baseball fans know that Sadaharu Oh, who went deep 868 times, is Japan’s all-time leader in home runs. Who ranks second? The answer is Katsuya Nomura, who homered 657 times in a career that spanned the 1954-1980 seasons.

On today’s date in 1998, Manny Ramirez hit three-run homer in the top of the 17th inning, and Cleveland held on to beat Seattle 9-8. David Justice and Edgar Martinez had traded solo shots in the 12th.

Ewell Blackwell’s record dropped to 18-3 on today’s date in 1947 when the Cincinnati Reds lost to the New York Giants 5-4 in 10 innings. The side-arming right-hander had posted complete-game wins in each of his previous 12 starts. He finished the year 22-8 with a 2.47 ERA.

Player born on today’s date include Joe Nuxhall, who holds the distinction of being the youngest player in MLB history. The Cincinnati Reds legend — the “Ol’ Left-hander” played 15 seasons in the Queen City — was seven weeks short of his 16th birthday when he made one pitching appearance in 1944.

Also born on today’s date was Jim Spencer, a smooth-fielding first baseman who played for five teams in a career that spanned the 1968-1982 seasons. A valuable role player for the World Series champion New York Yankees in 1978, the two-time Gold Glove winner was the grandson of Ben Spencer, who played with Walter Johnson on the 1913 Washington Senators.

Harry Heitmann faced four batters in his only big-league appearance and didn’t retire any of them. Starting the second game of a doubleheader against the St. Louis Cardinals on July 27, 1918, the Brooklyn Robins right-hander allowed two singles and a pair of triples (one of them to Rogers Hornsby) before being replaced on the mound by Burleigh Grimes. Heitmann was tagged with the loss as St. Louis went on to win 22-7 behind a 26-hit attack.





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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TKDCmember
8 months ago

The Rick Camp homer was before my time as a fan, but as a Braves fan I’ve seen it a few times and I’ve seen some stories and interviews about it. One of the funniest things about it was that the announcer for the Braves (John Sterling) practically predicted it was about to happen, and then it did.

Another good entry for this list would be Randy Johnson’s homer at age 40.