May 20, 2024


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MLB's endangered ace crisis: Spencer Stryder's surgery is the latest reminder of what baseball has lost

MLB's endangered ace crisis: Spencer Stryder's surgery is the latest reminder of what baseball has lost

I had an amazing conversation just a couple of weeks ago with Spencer Strider about one of his favorite topics:

The pursuit of greatness.

The hardest part was convincing the Braves' attractive young star that he could use that word “great” to describe himself. Yes, really. He went 20-5 last season. He led the world in strikes. However, he didn't even come close to his own definition of greatness.

Does it seem almost incomprehensible that Strider didn't receive a single Cy Young Award vote for first place after a season like that? It is for me…but not for him. In fact, he told me that if any voter had given him a first-place vote, he would have been “embarrassed.”

And why? How even? Because that 3.86 ERA he ended up with wasn't “acceptable,” no matter how much it contradicted any other number on his stat sheet.

“The hits, the IBF, the wins — I mean, sure, I get that,” Strider said. “But at the end of the day, there's a wide range of what's acceptable for an ERA. I think my price was a little high.”

As he spoke that day, you could feel his mind racing, his heart beating and his cosmopolitan moustache. So it's hard to fathom that the next time we see him progress probably won't be until sometime in 2025.

He and the Braves revealed the grim news this weekend. On Friday, Strider paid a visit to Dr. Keith Meister, his friendly neighborhood elbow surgeon. Meister's internal brace surgery was Strider's second procedure to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. He is only 25 years old will I'll come back.

He was – and still is – a man on a mission to do something special. But now the sport will have to do something it has come to practice a lot these days… move forward without another of the era's transcendent rock stars.

For 100 years, baseball has been about larger-than-life starting pitchers — from Lefty Grove to Randy Johnson, from Tom Seaver to Nolan Ryan, from Bob Gibson to Pedro Martinez. They were baseball's version of Steph and LeBron… Jordan and Kobe… Baylor and West.

They held the baseball in their hands 100 times a game. Then they worked their magic. It was their showcase of choreography. They're the reason the first question we're asked at every baseball game is: Who's throwing tonight?

So what should we ask now? Who should have pitched tonight?

Gerrit Cole is one of several star pitchers on the injured list. (Photo by Daniel Cherry/MLB via Getty Images)

• Of the six guys who lead all active pitchers in career ERA, WHIP, and wins above replacement, five are on the injured list right now. Maybe their names will ring a bell: Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole.

• Of the 10 active pitchers who have won the Cy Young Award, eight are currently affected. That would be those five mentioned above, plus Sandy Alcantara, Shane Bieber, and Robbie Ray.

• Of the five active players who have won multiple Cy Youngs, all are injured, except Blake Snell.

• Of the 12 active starters who have led the league in batting average in any of the past seven seasons, Seven They're not physically able to throw a baseball these days. This would be a group of the people listed in those lists above, as well as two controllers named Spencer Strider and Shohei Ohtani.

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eight Pitchers who have received Cy Young votes recently Last season They were already on the injured list this year. Ditto for two of the three pitchers who received Rookie of the Year votes last season (Kodai Senga and Yuri Perez).

Get an idea? This is how there are too many must-see sights on the absent list. But if we're only concerned about the impact their absence will have on their teams, we're thinking too small. In fact, it does seismic damage to the entertainment value of their sport.

You can pick your favorite baseball “crisis”: Ippei Mizuhara, the sportsbooks popping up near the stadium gates, the discovery of cable TV, the Tanks, the Dodgers' billion-dollar spending spree, anything else. I'll take this: Endangered myrtle crisis.

If the people running baseball can't figure out a way to reverse this trend, keep those aces healthy and regain their prominence in the game, they're going to have to put more emphasis on who will televise Rockies games. Trust me.

I don't know why Strider's elbow injury made me think about this 24/7. But in this job, there are some players and some conversations that stick in your head. This player and this chat left their mark on me.

There's not much I allow myself to be encouraged by in my job. But I achieve greatness. And I admire the people who go after it, who set that bar higher than almost everyone else around them.

I know how Cole, Verlander, Scherzer and Kershaw are driven by their fire to be historically great. I know this because I talked about it with everyone. It wasn't hard to figure out that Strider was involved in that fire. I wasn't ready to taste the ferocity of his involvement.

“Did you feel like you had a Cy Young season last year?” I asked him.

He replied: “No.” “Not even a little.”

He wouldn't even let me tell him how rare seasons like his are. So let me share that with you.

In the Cy Young Award era (1956–present), only seven other pitchers have received this award that season — By that I mean: 20 or more wins, but five or fewer losses, while leading the league in strikeouts:

jar years)

Pedro Martinez

1999 and 2002

Clayton Kershaw


Justin Verlander


Gerrit Cole


Randy Johnson


Dwight Gooden


Sandy Kovacs


(Source: Baseball Reference/Stathead)

This is a great list. And now you can add another name: Spencer Strider.

But here's Strider's list no Join us: Pitchers who did it all while winning the Cy Young Award.

That would be almost all of them, of course, with only two exceptions: Cole in 2019 and Pedro in 2002. But those two lost in races that were almost dead – Cole to Verlander, Pedro to Barry Zito. Cole received at least 13 first-place votes. Pedro got 11.

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And Strider? As I mentioned, He got nothing. In fact, he didn't even finish in the top three in National League voting. He finished fourth behind Snell (28 first-place votes), Logan Webb (one vote) and Zach Gallen (one vote). There is no precedent for this in the history of voting. So this is Spencer Strider, the outstanding player that young voters have forgotten about.

At least Strider let me do the short version of that research — the part where I told him that no one else on his season failed to get at least one first-place vote. I asked him if he found that even remotely strange.

“No,” he said, without hesitating for a minute. “I mean, no. I would have felt a little bit — how can I put this — I would have felt a little embarrassed about being voted first place.

embarrassed. That was the word he used — after a season in which he accumulated nearly twice as many hits (281) as hits (146). He also had a better WHIP, FIP, and strikeout rate than Snell. And pitch more roles. He beat him in knockouts – by 47!

There was literally only one reason no To vote for Spencer Strider – that's a 3.86 ERA…which was more than an inning and a half higher than Snell's 2.25. But their FIP numbers (2.85 for Strider, 3.44 for Snell) tell a very different story than their (theoretical) results. He should I got. So, looking back, is ERA alone enough to tell us which of these two really is Pitched better?

Even Strider's ever-reflective colleague, Charlie Morton, began analyzing voting trends for about 10 minutes when I asked him to weigh in on the topic.

“What are you guys looking for?” “Because I don't know,” Morton asked, referring to baseball writers who pick award winners. “I know the metrics are there for Spencer, right? You know, strikeouts, whiff rates, all that stuff. So I think at some point, 'if You look back at the season you had and you think, 'If I had just made a couple of better plays in some situations, (that era would look a lot different)'. This is exactly what happened with Spence.

“You'd look up, and he'd scramble. He'd have 15 strikeouts, no runs, one run. And then he'd walk somebody, hit the base, bunt, swing…and then the homer. And I mean it happened four or five times. That was pure luck.” Bad because he doesn't throw different pitches a lot.

Go back and look at Strider's 2023 season, start with the beginning, that's right. But when I offered that escape hatch to Strider himself… surprisingly, he wasn't interested in any “what if” excuses.

“There's something to be said for making outfields with runners on base,” he said sternly.

So naturally He's still obsessed with playgrounds He didn't do that Make. He marked it down in infinitesimal detail: not finishing Corbin Carroll with two hits and letting that bleed into a four-run inning… not getting a swing-defining third strike call on Mookie Betts and then delivering a wall-scraping three-run homer.

“I could play this game with you all day,” he said, in the middle of recapping another one of those games in Boston. “But that's no excuse.”

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So everyone else can throw up metrics to show that their ERA should not be It's been such a hike. Strider doesn't care what should have happened. He is motivated by what happened.

“The lows were very low,” he added. “Yes, the highs were high. But I think the consistency wasn't there. So yeah, I totally understand where you stand in Cy Young voting.”

Spencer Strider shows off his fire after hitting his 16th home run against the Rockies in 2022. (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

But take a step back and think about how data-driven contemporary Cy Young voters have become. Is it really that hard to imagine an alternate reality in which this man wins one of those awards? Again, it's not for me. But for a guy who had this season, it seemed unbelievable.

“If I had won it, I don’t know if they would have been able to convince me to go to the awards ceremony,” he said. “I say: Give it to someone else. For me, it doesn't matter – and I'm serious.”

I'll give you a second to digest that. This guy went 20-5 and had the strongest season of any starter in the game…and yet he was still unhappy with himself, he said. He wasn't going to go to the awards ceremony. surprising.

“I certainly don't want to take away credit from others,” Strider continued. “But my job isn't to be the best pitcher compared to other pitchers. It's to be the best pitcher I can be for my team, and to be what my teammates want me to be.

“Like I look at the NLDS last year,” he continued, still coming off two close losses to the Phillies (in which his teammates scored one combined run, by the way). “And I hold myself to that standard right there. My team needed me to be better, and I didn’t.”

Yes, but what about all his special moments last year? Sure, he remembers those. But those were other moments he couldn't stop thinking about. He pledged that day to use them as fuel, inspiration, and teachable experiences. Except now…

Well, he'd have more time to talk about them, wouldn't he? But all the brutally honest self-evaluation that came out of him when we talked is what I'll be thinking about — until the next time this guy can get back to the top of the big league mound.

That's the way ace thinks, my friends. This sport needs them all. On the hill – It can be approximated. Sad to say, it's just another reminder of what we're missing. But that's where we are.

One of these days, this guy who just had elbow surgery has a Cy Young ceremony waiting for him. Why do I doubt that when that moment comes, he will appear?

“Yes, they'll make me go, I'm sure,” said Strider, laughing. “But we'll cross that bridge when we get to it.”


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(Top photo by Spencer Stryder: Mike Erman/Getty Images)