Spencer Strider cuts quite a figure on the mound, a mustachioed rookie with a 100 mph fastball, fearless and aggressive with a flourish, his pitches punctuated with a pirouette, frequently after a hitter has finished flailing at a heater up in the strike zone or sometimes at a slider in the dirt.
Among all major-league relievers, his 37 strikeouts in 24 1/3 innings were second most in the majors before Thursday, behind the Yankees’ Michael King, who had one more strikeout (38) and three more innings pitched.
And if Strider’s “easy cheese” — a baseball term for a pitcher who makes high velocity look effortless — is initially startling coming from someone who’s no more than 6 feet tall in cleats, here’s something else that might surprise you about Strider: He’s a vegan.
He said he’s followed a strict plant-based diet since 2019, his second year at Clemson, when Strider was sidelined while recovering from Tommy John surgery. That was just one of the circumstances that influenced his decision to forgo meat. Another was a high-blood pressure diagnosis at age 18.
“I had high blood pressure, and I was medicated for it and felt like, as a 21-year-old athlete, I didn’t need to use medication,” he said. “So I wanted to pursue other methods of getting that down. Within two weeks of starting a plant-based diet, I had normal blood pressure levels without medication and haven’t had any problems since.”
And, he said, he was also inspired to refrain from eating meat, eggs or any dairy products for environmental reasons. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, almost 90 percent of worldwide deforestation from 2000 to 2018 was due to agricultural expansion (livestock grazing was responsible for about 40 percent of forest loss worldwide in the same time period).
“We’re growing more food to feed the animals that we’re ultimately eating than we’re eating ourselves, and it’s not sustainable,” Strider said. “I can’t solve that problem individually, but at the very least, I can do my part to help out.”
Many athletes who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet often cite the aim of reducing inflammation as a reason for the dietary change.
Strider believes his recovery from Tommy John surgery and from the demands of pitching were aided by his vegan diet.
“I was rehabbing TJ, and I rehabbed in 11 months with no setbacks,” he said. “I don’t think it’s entirely because of a plant-based diet; I mean, there’s a lot that goes into any reconstructive process like that. But yeah, since then I’ve recovered well and I haven’t had any problems, knock on wood. It’s definitely something I expect to continue doing for the entirety of my life.”
Can’t argue with his results: Strider, a fourth-round draft pick by the Braves in 2020, rocketed through their minor-league system in 2021. He started the season at Low-A Augusta and was promoted four times, pitching at every level of the organization in one year and totaling 153 strikeouts in 94 innings before making his major-league debut in the final weekend of the season.
He pitched so well at spring training this year that he made the Opening Day roster, and Strider has surpassed any and all reasonable expectations for a 23-year-old in his second season of pro ball.
He has a 2.22 ERA in 11 appearances, and in his past seven games Strider has posted a 1.17 ERA while racking up 26 strikeouts and just three walks in 15 1/3 innings.
“He’s been fantastic,” said veteran Braves reliever Collin McHugh. “He puts in his work every day. To be able to go out there and do what he does, doesn’t just happen by accident. He’s really polished and composed for a young kid. Him and Ian (Anderson), and (Kyle Wright) and Max (Fried) and some of these guys, they’re mature beyond their years. It’s fun to watch.”
Strider’s 98.6 average fastball velocity is tied with Cincinnati phenom Hunter Greene for sixth highest in the majors among pitchers who’ve thrown at least 250 pitches, ahead of the likes of Yankees ace Gerrit Cole (97.6) and White Sox closer Liam Hendriks (97.5).
Spencer Strider, 83mph Slider (sword) and 99mph Fastball (swinging K), Individual Pitches + Overlay pic.twitter.com/WHlaCbHaqf
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 26, 2022
Among all rookie pitchers — starters and relievers — who’ve faced at least 20 batters this season, Strider’s strikeout rate of 13.68 per nine innings is the highest in the majors. And among the seven major-league relievers with at least 30 strikeouts before Thursday, Strider and Milwaukee’s Devin Williams were the only ones who had yet to give up a home run.
“I mean, every time he pitches I always just come back in the dugout and say, ‘That guy is nasty,’” Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “He is so good and he’s so comfortable — when I say he’s comfortable with himself, like, he’s very confident in who he is. And he does it in such a respectful way, it’s so awesome to be around somebody like that. Especially at that age.
“I feel like he soaks in all the right information and goes out there and does his thing.”
Soaking in information is also what Strider did before making the decision to go vegan.
“I had a trainer at Clemson mention it to me, and then some other (Clemson) teammates mentioned about some of their friends or relatives or somebody — it just kind of came up anecdotally,” he said. “And I looked into it and saw some of the results of people who are prediabetic and how it lowers their dependency on insulin, and with high blood pressure, arthritis issues, how the diet changes can be more effective than medication in a lot of cases. And for me, it was the right fix.”
Strider said high blood pressure runs in his family, including his mother and his maternal grandfather, both diagnosed at around 18. He said his mom started taking medication around that age.
“Now she’s actually starting to implement some of my diet changes and it’s helped her control it a lot better,” he said.
“I felt like, at my age, if I could avoid taking medication — and at that point, it was about to be two to three pills a day — then I was going to pursue (an alternative). It just didn’t seem right for me to be dependent on medication at 19.”
He added: “As athletes, we’re so protein-focused. And that’s how I was. And as a result, I was vicariously eating way too much fat and not getting enough carbs, which are really your fuel source. And so I was missing out on some vitamins and central minerals and things that the plant-based diet was making up for. It was a quick change and I definitely feel better every day.”
Asked what he typically eats now, Strider said: “Well, that’s the nice thing about it. (Braves closer Kenley Jansen) and I were actually talking about it because he’s got high blood pressure, as well. And I said, yeah, my favorite foods used to be steak and pizza. But you can’t eat those things every day. But now it’s a taco with corn, beans, rice, guacamole. I can eat that every day. That’s great. Or a big bowl of berries for dessert, or in the morning — you know, with granola and coconut milk yogurt. That’s so healthy compared to the traditional American breakfast — eggs, bacon, cheese and, you know, hash browns with cheese — the Waffle House all-star special.
“So yeah, that’s nice. It kind of makes the whole variety issue a lot better. Because the food that you do like, you can eat every day. So you don’t mind having the same thing — like, I do the same thing for breakfast every single day.”
“A big bowl of berries with granola, coconut milk yogurt and avocado toast,” he said.
And if his vegan staples were sometimes hard to find in minor-league locales, they’re not now.
“Now I can make some gourmet avocado toast,” he said, smiling.
And again, those results: Of the seven major-league relievers with more than 30 strikeouts before Thursday, only Minnesota’s Jhoan Duran (0.75) and the Yankees’ King (1.02) had a lower WHIP (walks-plus-hits per inning pitched) than Strider (1.03). Only four major-league relievers had thrown more pitchers than Strider (405).
Strider routinely reaches 100 mph with his fastball, which is complemented by a quality slider and infrequent changeup. He was a starter in college and in the minors until just before his call-up, and the Braves might move him back to starter this season or in the future, but ultimately it seems “dominant closer” could be his calling.
For now, manager Brian Snitker loves what he’s getting from Strider in what’s become a multi-innings relief role in mostly high-leverage situations. With Luke Jackson out recovering from TJ surgery and setup man Tyler Matzek on the injured list with a sore shoulder after struggling early, Strider has played a vital role.
“This is what I visualized,” Snitker said when asked if this was what he had in mind when deciding earlier whether to keep Strider in the bullpen or move him to the rotation. “You hope somebody comes and grabs that opportunity, where we can continue to use him in this role. We still have the option, if we want, if something happens and we want to start him. But I like him doing what he’s doing right now. He’s handled everything we’ve given him so far.”
In this versatile relief role, Strider has been able to impact more games than he might as a starter.
“I like to be able to use him more,” Snitker said. “We’ve got to be careful, too —I mean it’s May, and in August, September, October I want him to be upright. But I think we’ve done a good job of spacing (his appearances). He hasn’t had a back-to-back effort, which we’ll probably put off for a while.”
Strider is ready for whatever comes his way and believes his vegan diet is part of the reason for his success.
(Photo: Todd Kirkland / Getty Images)