MLB’s endangered ace crisis: Spencer Strider’s surgery is latest reminder of what baseball has lost

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It was just two weeks ago that I had an incredible conversation with Spencer Strider about one of his favorite topics:

The pursuit of greatness.

The hard part was convincing the Braves’ magnetic young ace he could use that word, “great,” to describe himself. Yeah, really. He went 20-5 last season. He led the world in strikeouts. Yet he still didn’t even approach his own definition of greatness.

Does it seem almost incomprehensible that Strider didn’t get a single first-place Cy Young Award vote after a season like that? It does to me … but not to him. In fact, he told me if any voter had actually handed him a first-place vote, he’d have been “embarrassed.”

And why? How even? Because that 3.86 ERA he wound up with wasn’t “acceptable,” no matter how out of whack it was compared with every other number on his stat sheet.

“The strikeouts, the FIP, the wins — I mean, sure, I get it,” Strider said. “But at the end of the day, there’s a spectrum of what’s acceptable for an ERA. And I think mine was a little too high.”

As he spoke that day, you could feel his mind race, his heart throb and his world-class mustache swirl. So it’s hard to digest that the next time we see him pitch probably won’t be until sometime in 2025.

He and the Braves revealed that grim news this weekend. On Friday, Strider paid a visit to Dr. Keith Meister, his friendly neighborhood elbow surgeon. The internal brace surgery Meister performed was Strider’s second procedure to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. He is only 25. So he will be back.

He was — and is — a man on a mission to do something special. But this sport now will have to do something it is getting way too much practice at these days … move forward without another one of the transcendent rotation rock stars of the era.

For 100 years, baseball revolved around its 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 show to choreograph. They were the reason the first question we asked about every baseball game was: Who’s pitching tonight?

So what should we ask now? Who SHOULD have been pitching tonight?


Gerrit Cole is one of many star pitchers on the injured list. (Daniel Shirey / MLB Photos via Getty Images)

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

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

• Of the five active starters who have won multiple Cy Youngs, all of them are hurt, except for Blake Snell.

• Of the 12 active starters who have led their league in strikeout rate in any of the past seven seasons, seven aren’t physically able to throw a baseball these days. That would be a bunch of guys on those lists above, plus two dominators named Spencer Strider and Shohei Ohtani.

• Eight pitchers who got Cy Young votes as recently as last season have already been 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 Eury Pérez).

Get the idea? That’s way too many must-see attractions on the absentee list. But if we’re just worrying about the impact their absence has on their teams, we’re thinking way too small. In truth, it’s inflicting seismic damage on the entertainment value of their sport.

You can pick your favorite baseball “crisis:” Ippei Mizuhara, sports books springing up near the ballpark gates, the unraveling of cable TV, tanking, the Dodgers’ billion-dollar spending spree, whatever. I’ll take this one: the endangered ace crisis.

If the people who run baseball can’t figure out a way to reverse this trend, keep those aces healthy and restore their prominence in the game, they’ll have more to stress about than who’s going to televise Rockies games. Trust me.

I don’t know why Strider’s elbow injury got me thinking 24/7 about this. But in this job, there are certain players and certain conversations that stick in your head. And this player and this chat left their mark on me.

There isn’t much I permit myself to root for in my job. But I root for greatness. And I admire the people who chase it, who set that bar higher than almost everyone else around them.

I know how driven Cole and Verlander, Scherzer and Kershaw are by their fire to be historically great. I know because I’ve talked about it with all of them. It wasn’t hard to tell that Strider shared that fire. I just wasn’t prepared to get a taste of how ferociously he shared it.

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

“No,” he replied. “Not even a little bit.”

He wouldn’t even let me fill him in on how rare seasons like his actually are. So let me share that with you.

In the Cy Young Award era (1956-present), only seven other pitchers have had that season — by which I mean: 20 wins or more, but five losses or fewer, while leading their league in strikeouts:

PITCHER YEAR(S)

Pedro Martinez

1999 and 2002

Clayton Kershaw

2011

Justin Verlander 

2011

Gerrit Cole  

2019

Randy Johnson

2002

Dwight Gooden 

1985

Sandy Koufax  

1963

(Source: Baseball Reference / Stathead)

That’s a cool list. And you can now add one more name: Spencer Strider.

But here’s the list Strider doesn’t get to join: Pitchers who did all that while winning a Cy Young Award.

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

And Strider? As I mentioned, he got none. In fact, he didn’t even finish in the top three in the National League voting. He was fourth, behind Snell (28 first-place votes), Logan Webb (one) and Zac Gallen (one). There is no precedent for that in the history of voting. So that’s Spencer Strider, the ace Cy Young voters forgot.

At least Strider let me present the short version of that research — the part in which I informed him that nobody else who had his season had failed to come away with at least one first-place vote. I asked if he found that even remotely weird.

“No,” he said, without a millisecond’s hesitation. “I mean, no. I would have been a little — how do I phrase this — I would have been a little bit embarrassed by a first-place vote.”

Embarrassed. That was the word he used — after a season in which he piled up almost twice as many strikeouts (281) as hits allowed (146). He also had a better WHIP, FIP and strikeout rate than Snell. And pitched more innings. And beat him in strikeouts — by 47!

There was literally only one reason not to vote for Spencer Strider — that 3.86 ERA … which was more than a run 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 of the results they (theoretically) should have gotten. So in retrospect, is ERA alone enough to tell us which of those two really pitched better?

Even Strider’s ever-pensive teammate, Charlie Morton, launched into nearly a 10-minute breakdown of voting trends when I asked him to reflect on this topic.

“What are you guys looking for?” Morton asked, referring to the baseball writers who pick the award winners, “because I don’t know. 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’re him) you look at the season that you had and you think: ‘If I had just made a couple of better pitches in some situations, (that ERA would look a lot different).’ And that’s exactly what happened with Spence.

“You’d look up, and he’d be shoving. He’d have 15 strikeouts, no runs, one run. And then he walks somebody, base hit, bloop, swinging bunt … and then homer. And I mean, it happened like four or five times. And it was, like, man, that is bad luck because he’s not throwing pitches that are much different.”

Go back and look at Strider’s 2023 season, start by start, and that’s true. But when I offered that escape hatch to Strider himself … surprise, he had no interest in any what-if excuses.

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

So of course he’s still obsessed with the pitches he didn’t make. He ticked them off in infinitesimal detail: not finishing off Corbin Carroll with two strikes and allowing that to bleed into a four-run inning … not getting a checked-swing third-strike call on Mookie Betts and then serving up a wall-scraping three-run homer.

“I can play this game all day with you,” he said, halfway through a recap of another one of those games in Boston. “But that’s not an excuse.”

So everyone else can toss out the metrics to show that his ERA shouldn’t have been that high. Strider doesn’t care about what should have happened. He’s driven by what did happen.

“The lows were too low,” he said. “Yeah, the highs were high. But I think it’s just the consistency wasn’t there. So yeah, I completely understand where I landed in the Cy Young voting.”


Spencer Strider shows his fire after recording his 16th strikeout in a game against the Rockies in 2022. (Rich von Biberstein / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

But take a step back and think about how data-driven modern Cy Young voters have become. Is it really that hard to imagine an alternative reality where this guy would have won one of those trophies? Again, it isn’t for me. But to the man who had that season, it seemed preposterous.

“If I’d won it, I don’t know that they could get me to go to the award ceremony,” he said. “I’d say: Give it to somebody else. To me, it doesn’t matter — and I’m being serious.”

I’m going to give you a second to digest that. This guy went 20-5 and had the most overpowering season of any starter in the game … yet still was so unhappy with himself, he said he wouldn’t have gone to the award ceremony. Amazing.

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

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

Yeah, but what about all his highlight moments last year? Sure, he remembers those. But it was those other moments he couldn’t stop thinking about. He vowed that day to use them as fuel, as inspiration, as teachable experiences. Except now …

Well, he’ll have a lot more time to stew about them, won’t he? But all the brutally honest self-assessment that came spilling out of him when we spoke is what I’ll be thinking about — until the next time this man gets to stomp back to the top of a big-league hill.

That, my friends, is how aces think. And this sport needs all of them — on the mound — that it can round up. It’s sad to say he’s just one more reminder of what we’re missing. But that’s where we are.

One of these days, that dude who just underwent elbow surgery has a Cy Young ceremony waiting for him. And why do I suspect that when that moment arrives, he’ll show up?

“Yeah, they’ll make me go, I’m sure,” Strider said, laughing. “But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

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(Top photo of Spencer Strider: Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)

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