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Interviewing Spencer Strider on his early 2021 breakout pitching performance

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Spencer Strider is a very good pitching prospect in the Braves organization. As it turns out, he is a hell of an interview, too.

NCAA BASEBALL: JUN 03 Vanderbilt v Clemson Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With minor league baseball underway, one of our favorite parts of covering the minors are the guys that come out of nowhere to surprise the hell out of us. Don’t get me wrong...watching Michael Harris tear through High-A gets us all hot and bothered, but seeing new storylines emerge in the farm system and having new players to talk about is something unique to the minor leagues.

Case in point: Spencer Strider

Strider was the Braves’ 4th round pick in the 2020 draft and was the pick that we were the most curious about from that draft class. Strider was a pretty highly regarded prep pitcher before he made his way to Clemson. During his time at Clemson, he had to undergo Tommy John surgery and with that, plus the COVID-19 shutdown in 2020, not many people had seen him pitch much at all since his high school days. That just wasn’t the profile of a player that we thought would get selected in an abridged draft format, so it was interesting to dig into his profile and wonder what we could expect.

What we didn’t expect was for him to be the early frontrunner for the most dominant pitching prospect in the Braves’ system during the 2021 season. The guy is putting up video game numbers for Low-A Augusta with a fastball that sits in the upper 90’s and touches triple digits along with a breaking ball that ranges from a sweeping slider to a power curve depending on how he chooses to throw it. Plus, his post strikeout mound pivot is on point.

As we said, we love breakout performances and we love having new stories to tell, so I was chomping at the bit to chat baseball with Strider. Fortunately, not only was he willing to do so, but as you will see below, his insights into his development and path to the pros have us more excited than ever for his future in the Braves’ organization. Enjoy!

When did you start to consider that you had a potential career in baseball as an option? Was it something you were actively working towards as a kid or did you just start noticing that scouts/teams were interested in you in high school?

I mean, that has always been my direction since I was little. Maybe since I was 3 or 4. Once I had a concept of professional baseball, that was my reality and that was what I was working towards. From a practical perspective, I guess it was the summer going into my senior year. The recruiting trail was pretty hot for me and there was a lot of attention, so I think some MLB scouts started wondering “who is this guy that is getting all of these college coaches coming to watch him?”

I was into the low to mid-90’s by that point, but it wasn’t super realistic that I would have a pro option out of high school, but there was definitely some buzz there. I didn’t really go to showcases that much in terms of individual showcases. My travel team played at all of the Perfect Game tournaments and the bigger southeast tournaments, so I was always around where the talent was. The only thing I did that was different than that was the East Coast Pro showcase which was July of 2016 going into my senior year.

Coming out of high school, you not only had essentially your pick of college landing spots including Kentucky, Mississippi State, Georgia Tech, and Clemson which is where you ended up playing, but you also could have gone pro right out of high school as you were already touching the mid-90’s. What made you decide to forgo going pro and decide to end up going to Clemson?

Well, going into the spring of my senior year, that was the highest point of the reality that going pro out of high school was. My first few outings were really good and there was a lot of attention, and then I just sort of trickled off and my velo died off as my mechanics got away from me. I think that I had built up so much for that season that I kind of gassed myself early. I wasn’t able to maintain my body composition because I had gotten up to 215 pounds and I was really strong and had put on a lot of good weight, but then I couldn’t maintain it through the season and that affected the way I moved and threw. My breaking stuff kind of trickled down.

I think that I knew that if I went pro at that point, that I was going to be picking up with somebody as a player that wasn’t refined enough. I didn’t really understand who I was as a pitcher as much as I do now.

As for Clemson, it was the first place I visited when I decommitted from Ohio and I walked in and immediately I thought that this place was something else. This place is crazy. The coaches were just professional, confident, and you could tell that winning was all they cared about. They had the resources, they knew that they were going to have talent, and they knew that this was the real deal and that they were going to win. From then on, while I didn’t commit right away, but from that first visit on, I was pretty set on Clemson.

Your path to the Braves actually reminds me a lot of the path that your teammate Jake Higginbotham took in that you both could have gone pro out of high school, made it to Clemson’s campus instead, and then had significant injuries while at campus. You mentioned elsewhere at the tail end of your rehab from TJS that you had to relearn how to throw and that you thought you would be better as a result. What changes did you end up making to your delivery or pitches in the wake of your surgery and do you still think that your rehab made you a better pitcher?

One of the things that was instrumental in my path over the last two years was that right when I got hurt, the mental performance coach at Clemson, Cory Shaffer, who is a really good friend of mine and is a huge figure in my baseball career, told me that this is a pretty routine thing for guys now, but what is going to separate you from another guy who has TJ is that you are going to look at this and say this is an opportunity for me to get better. Because of this injury, I am going to become a better pitcher. That perspective, before I even had surgery, helped me be confident and somewhat enthusiastic about the whole process even though obviously I couldn’t play.

Right away, I identified all of the mechanical things that I wanted to change and the way I wanted to maintain certain aspects of my arsenal and others I wanted to build, particularly with my offspeed. The first five months after TJS, there is no throwing and no baseball movements at all, so you are just left with a lot of idle time to really structure out a plan so that when you start throwing, you just implement that plan. After that, I just filled in the spaces when I started throwing and everything turned out the way I had set it up.

Do you feel like your mechanics are much cleaner post Tommy John or were the changes more minor and you just had to get back to where you were?

Oh I think that they are almost entirely different. I didn’t use my legs nearly as much pre-Tommy John. My back knee would collapse very early. My hips were very tilted upward towards home...they weren’t level down towards home. I had a longer arm action and my arm was landing in a worse spot at foot strike, so I was having to pull down from my shoulders which put a lot of stress on my elbow which is probably what ended up compromising my UCL. Now, I am using my legs more and that is kind of a staple of my game anyways. I am in the weight room and have a very strong lower body. It would have been pretty counterproductive to not alter my mechanics to get more out of my lower body.

Flash forward to the 2020 season and obviously everything was incredibly weird last year. No one had much in the way of playing time and the draft was only five rounds so anyone getting drafted was FAR from a sure thing. Going into the draft, how much interest was there from the Braves (and other teams) in drafting you and did you think you were going to be drafted?

Even before the season started, there was more interest than I was anticipating because I was hurt and hadn’t thrown since 2018 and no one had seen me throw yet. Once the season ended and people started to figure out what the next few months are going to look like and how the draft was going to go, there were a fair amount of teams that were interested so I was confident that it would happen, but again...it was a weird circumstance. No one really knew what to anticipate. It was all educated guesses, but fortunately it worked out.

The day of the second day of the draft, the team I heard from the most was the Braves. Up until that point, I guess I had underestimated their interest in me, but going into that night I was expecting something to happen and sure enough, that’s who took me.

I will personally admit that while there was no denying the talent you have, I had no idea what to expect out of you as a pro because of the layoff and with you coming off of injury. Then, we start hearing that your fastball is ticking up at the alt site and this spring and now you are sitting in the high 90’s. Do you attribute that increase in velocity to anything in particular?

Well I mean, I have always been trying to throw harder. The great equalizer is velocity. Everything else can be crap, but if you can throw hard, you can get away with a lot. I think there are benefits in improving the way you move and vicariously, you will end up improving your command or you will put your hand in a better position at release to have better offspeed and get more spin on the ball. Those things stem from trying to move better with more force to throw harder, but I think all of that started when I was rebuilding my mechanics after Tommy John. Then, when the season ended last year and I had all of that down time before I went to the alternate site, I was left with nothing to do but work out, improve my body, and improve the way I moved. I tried a few things and experimented with different movement patterns while testing some hypotheses I had. When I was finally able to test some things out at the alternate site, I was able to move a lot freer and quicker and as I have found which things I need to stick with long-term, I keep working on those things and the velocity has continued to go up.

What role do you see yourself in as a pitcher as you progress? Obviously you are starting now, but some would argue that your fastball/slider combo would be devastating as reliever...but starters that throw in the high 90’s with a good breaking ball are great as well.

I mean, I just want to win games and just get to the big leagues. That is really the goal and whatever I have to do to do that, that is what I am going to do. That said, I train as a starter, I like to work fast...really, I think this whole pace of play issue could be solved by guys improving their physical conditioning and spending a little less time between pitches. I think that is a pretty valuable attribute when you can throw hard and throw strikes. So far, I have held my velocity late into games and I don’t anticipate that being an issue going forward. If command, velocity, and stuff can maintain for more than two to three innings, I don’t see a reason why myself or anybody else should be pushed into a bullpen spot yet.

Are there any plans to try to add any other pitches or sticking with the fastball, slider, and power curve? Is a changeup in the works?

I have not thrown a changeup in a game yet, no. We really wanted to focus on the breaking ball. Last year, coming out of the Clemson season, I was throwing a true curve and given some command issues I was having at the alternate site and some accidental added spin and velocity, they said that you could probably be throwing this breaking ball harder with a little less movement, but because it’s harder, it is easier to control and it is going to get more swings and misses because it is easier to throw in and out of zone. With the curveball, I always felt like I had to put it in a smaller window given it was slower and had more movement. So, we decided that we should focus on that pitch for now and I feel like in spring training, I figured it out quickly to take it from just a slider/cutter to something I can throw with more intent as a power curve when I need to.

Do you have any specific goals for the 2021 season?

You know, another one of the things that Cory Shaffer at Clemson that had to beat into my stubborn head was that you can only control what you can control. I can influence how I move through a system, but I can’t control it. My only intention is to go out, continue doing well, and wherever I am pitching...pitch well and pitch my game. Results are cool, but I also need to keep in perspective that I have things to work on and try and develop like a third pitch and continuing to solidify my slider. Wherever that takes me, it takes me even though obviously I have my own dreams and aspirations that some people may laugh at. I’m not afraid to prove some people wrong.