April is soon coming to an end and the Braves have yet to win a series this season. The pitching was sharp this past Friday in the series opener against the Marlins, but last night it was another frustrating loss due to six earned runs from the bullpen. With five relievers used in that 9-7 loss on Saturday, Atlanta needs another strong outing from a starting pitcher, and it needs to come today from prospect Bryce Elder. Can he do it?
Elder is coming off one solid start and one bad one. His MLB debut back on April 12 against the Nationals was a success. Sure, the kid allowed a pair of homers, but he ultimately kept the Braves in the game and managed to last into the sixth inning, thanks to no walks and just three earned runs from six hits. Start #2 in San Diego was admittedly hard to watch. From the get-go you could tell Elder didn’t have complete command or control of his stuff, and as a result he walked five batters and was gone with one out in the fifth. He did a nice job of preventing a disaster, that should be acknowledged, and Atlanta’s bats couldn’t figure out Yu Darvish anyways. But overall it was a lacking performance by the Braves prospect.
Entering today’s day game versus Miami, Elder sports a 4.50 ERA but a 6.21 xERA (expected ERA), which probably stems from the fact that his contact allowed has been harder than average; his 46.9 HardHit% is roughly 11% higher than the MLB average rate. The truth is, so far Elder is essentially skating by, and his results probably haven’t been as bad as they really should be. That’s not taking anything away from what he’s done. That’s just the way it is sometimes, and with such a small sample of data, it could all turn around in a hurry.
So far Elder has done quite an incredible job of literally using his entire repertoire. Overall, the kid has thrown four different pitches at least 23% of the time (cutter, changeup, sinker, slider), with two others that he’s thrown just once each, in his curveball and four-seam fastball. That’s pretty rare, and it has certainly been effective as opposing batters have only really consistently squared up one of those offerings – his sinker (.385 AVG / .490 wOBA). I’m far from a genius when it comes to this type of stuff, but it appears that Elder’s combination of different pitches is keeping the opposition guessing, which is what most pitchers are going for. His changeup has probably been considered his best weapon so far, as it has not only been difficult for batters to put in play but it’s also a pitch that has generated a 36% whiff rate.
In terms of a game plan, Elder didn’t really change too much between his first and second start. Against the Nats, he leaned more on his offspeed, and versus the Padres he threw more cutters. But we’re talking about a difference of what’s essentially a handful of pitches, as in both outings Elder maintained plenty of versatility among his offerings. Other than him throwing a quartet of pitches at a similar rate, the other thing that has remained constant when examining his two previous starts is the usefulness of Elder’s slider. Versus Washington he threw 17 of them and generated seven swings to go with three whiffs (43 Whiff%); versus San Diego he totaled 23 and induced six swings to go with three whiffs (50%). Although it appears this could be more of a handiness-type thing, as overall Elder seems to favor sliders against lefty-batters and sinkers versus righties. But regardless, the slide piece is working well, holding opposing batters to a decent .250 AVG but an even better .216 expected-AVG. He went to the pitch more in his last outing, so maybe that’s a trend that should continue?
All in all, this is really just splitting hairs anyways. I mean 10 innings worth of pitching just isn’t much to go by, and the fact that Elder lacked any command last time out screws up the data even more, given he was likely just doing everything he could last Sunday to simply throw a strike. To me, there’s two ways to look at Elder right now: 1) he has gotten lucky and a blow-up outing could be on its way… or 2) perhaps he’s figuring some things out, like when and where to mix in all of his different pitches. Ultimately, I think it could be a combination of the two.
Lucky for him, though, today’s assignment comes against a much less dangerous Marlins lineup. Sure, lead-off hitter Jazz Chisholm Jr. is raking at the moment, but overall Miami is not quite the Padres, as the former currently ranks 19th in runs while the latter sits just outside the top 10 at 11th. On Friday, Kyle Wright was able to fly through the Marlins lineup with a healthy combination of breaking balls and his four-seam fastball. Elder isn’t the power pitcher that Wright is, but perhaps there are some takeaways that the younger righty can use to have some success today. Either way, what Elder has managed to do so far this season is still pretty impressive, given this time last season he was in High-A Rome. The Braves don’t necessarily need a gem from the kid, but perhaps Elder’s third start is the best one yet. The Braves could definitely use a good one.