Baseball is truly a funny game. Coming into the 2023 season, Atlanta Braves starter Bryce Elder had been afforded just 9 starts in the big leagues and 54 innings… barely enough to escape the “rookie” label.
In those 9 starts, he posted a 3.17 ERA, which included an improbable complete game shutout — improbable because that still tied him for the lead in the majors for shutouts, albeit with 15 other much-more-seasoned starters. One of those was tonight’s mound opponent and Cy Young award winner Sandy Alacantara.
Still: that, some injuries, and some Spring upgrades to his repertoire bought Elder an invitation to fill in whilst others rehabbed themselves at Gwinnett.
The results have been remarkable. Only one team has even scored on Elder in 4 outings, and he’s currently fourth in baseball among qualified pitchers* with a 1.14 ERA, trailing only Sonny Gray, Gerrit Cole, and some freak of nature named Shoehei Otani.
* Technically, Elder is no longer qualified: he’s 1 out short of that now that Atlanta played their 24th game of the season last night. Elder will be re-qualified tonight, assuming that he gets at least 4 Miami batters to record outs.
The overriding question, though, is this one: is it real?
A Walk Through the Deep End of the Stat Pool
You can poke at ‘peripheral’ stats, and start raising some doubts. Fangraphs shows Elder’s expected ERA (xERA) at 3.98, his FIP at 2.52, expected FIP at 3.53, and SIERA at 3.74.
I make no secret of my personal disdain for FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching). My problem with it involves multiple factors:
- A huge emphasis on strikeouts (thus a “strikeout pitcher” will always have a low FIP; example: Spencer Strider‘s is 1.69… but admittedly, he’s earned that)
- For non-strikeout pitchers, fielding skills are vital and that’s especially the case for ‘soft contact’ and ‘pitch-to-contact’ pitchers. But a very large part of their skill area and stat results are excluded by FIP and xFIP.
These factors explain why Max Fried had an ERA of 2.48 with higher FIP and xFIP scores of 2.70/2.85 in 2022.
xFIP also adds another wrinkle: it makes a guess at how many fly balls “should have” been homers… and penalizes fly ball pitchers for that.
Oddly enough, pitchers giving up a lot of actual homers (Charlie Morton) get rewarded with xFIP: his 2022 xFIP was .66 lower than his FIP for this reason.
SIERA (“Skill-Interactive ERA”) attempts to bridge some of those gaps, but it’s got a crazy-complex formula that attempts to take a lot of elements into account… including grounders… but the treatment of ground balls is, to say the least, complicated.
However, SIERA also emphasizes strikeouts… even more than FIP does, which again tends to work against non-strikeout pitchers.
SIERA’s scaling (by Fangraph’s reckoning) is that an average SIERA is 3.90 and a great one is 3.25 and lower. In 2022, Fried and Wright had 3.31 and 3.48 SIERA’s, respectively. Strider? 2.41.
So far this season, Fried and Elder both have a relatively pedestrian figure of 3.74… despite their mutually successful results.
Back to Reality
Okay, enough of that theoretical stuff. Let’s look at some actual game data.
Elder has reached the sixth inning in all four starts. He’s given up no runs against the Cardinals, Reds, and Astros.
The Houston start is noteworthy: it’s a club clearly on the upswing, taking 7 of their last 10 games (Elder clearly not contributing to that) and scoring the 3rd most runs in their league thus far.
That was an example of very good Elder game, though he still had some scary moments with “line drive” or “lineout” noted several times. That’ll become a theme as we continue.
Against the Royals, Elder… may not have been on his best that day. While the last run (of 3) he was charged with came via another hand, he was on the edge of disaster multiple times, and the word “lineout” appears several times in this game log, too.
Indeed, the statcast boards have something revealing here. Of all pitchers having 50 or more Batted Ball Events, Bryce Elder has the dubious distinction of ranking in the top 10% (13th of 132) in average exit velocity (92.3 mph). Or maybe that should read “bottom 10%”.
The highest average EV is 94.8 mph (owned by KC’s Brady Singer… whom the Braves feasted upon).
When isolating that to ground balls, it’s a bit worse for Bryce: 5th overall at 91.8 mph, a scant 1.5 mph below the #1 contributor.
The saving grace for Elder may be that while batters are (clearly) hitting him hard, they still aren’t quite getting him ‘barreled up’… the stats also suggest that he’s excellent at avoiding Barreled Ball Events (BBE’s).
In fact, of those with the top ground ball EV’s, Elder is easily doing the best at avoiding the dreaded BBE. At least for now.
This is what worries me about Elder’s pitching: with a lot of pitches thrown (he’s exited the game with 93+ pitches in every start but one), he’s pretty much riding on the edge.
By throwing more pitches and getting hit hard, hitters are almost certainly just missing his offerings.
You’d think that the odds will catch up to him over time… and the KC game may very well have been one such example.
For the most part, Elder got away with that simply because KC has one of the worst run-scoring offenses in baseball.
The other factor in Elder’s favor? Limiting walks while increasing his strikeout rate. Both stats have moved in the right direction so far in 2023: walks per 9 are down significantly (almost 30%) and strikeouts per nine are up by almost 1.
Turns out that he faces another inept scoring group tonight in the Marlins.
That will help him, but it’s a matter that Elder doesn’t have the elite fastball that others on the staff possess. 91 mph is where he lives.
That’s good enough if everything else is mixed well, AND if there’s enough separation in speeds or movement (or both) with his other offerings.
Thus far this season, the charts suggest that Elder is living and dying by command. If that slips, so will his fortunes.
That may continue to work against a team like the Marlins, but… well, let’s just continue to enjoy this ride while it lasts.