Before his first-ever spring training game Monday, Braves reliever A.J. Minter reflected upon where he was a year ago at this time (he was injured) and the lesson learned about keeping quiet and trying to pitch through pain.
“If I am sore – my elbow, my arm – I need to listen to that and tell the trainer, not try to push through it,” the hard-throwing left-hander said. “Not try to rush and make the team in one day. That’s really it. Take it slow.”
He gave up two singles to start the fourth inning against the Nationals before inducing a double-play grounder and another grounder to get out unscathed in a 2-1 Braves win at Champion Stadium.
“First spring training game in the books,” Minter said. “It was successful. Went out, put a zero up. Got out of a jam and didn’t walk anyone. I’m happy with how it went.”
The Braves have big plans last spring for the hard-throwing setup man and potential future closer. He didn’t get to the majors as soon as originally expected due to injuries, but was impressive, to say the least, once he arrived.
Minter had 26 strikeouts with only two walks and one homer allowed in 15 innings, posting a 3.00 ERA and 1.000 WHIP (walks-plus-hits per inning pitched) in 16 games.
“He’s good. He’s going to be extremely good for as long as he can stay healthy,” Braves veteran catcher Tyler Flowers said. “The guy’s got a two-pitch mix and just dominates people. That’s impressive.”
His strikeout rate rivaled former Atlanta All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel’s in his first call-up with the Braves, and Minter has been called a left-handed version of Kimbrel by some observers. Flowers sees similarities to another terrific former closer who once pitched for the Braves, a lefty.
“For some reason I think of Billy Wagner when I first saw him, caught him and everything,” Flowers said. “That might be a lot to live up to, but I’d be surprised if he doesn’t.”
The initial projection was an early-summer 2017 debut for Minter. But he came to spring training determined to show he was ready to make the opening-day roster and got hurt in the process.
He ended up with elbow inflammation the first week of camp and never pitched in a Grapefruit League game before being sent to minor league camp in mid-March.
“That first bullpen when I got here last year,” Minter said, “everyone’s watching and I feel like I have to throw hard. I really went down the next day.”
Then right after he began pitching at high Single-A Florida in April, he strained an adductor (groin) muscle and missed two months.
For the Texas native, the injuries were made more frustrating by the fact that they came after he’d fully recovered from Tommy John elbow surgery he had at Texas A&M. The Braves took him in the second round of the 2015 draft while he was recovering from elbow surgery, when the team said he’d have been a first-rounder if he wasn’t hurt. The Braves felt fortunate to get Minter when they did.
So to come back from that and be in position to compete for a major league roster spot last spring, only to have his hopes quashed by nagging injuries that threatened to spoil another entire season, was a difficult experience. Especially for a guy who wanted to prove the team no longer needed to be cautious in its approach with Minter, as they had in his first season back from elbow surgery in 2016 by giving him multiple rest days between appearances.
Once he started pitching again last summer in the minors, it took him a while to shake off the proverbial rust and start to flash dominance again. But when the Braves had seen it in a few appearances and were confident in his health, Minter got the call to the majors. He surpassed all expectations and showed why they considered him a first-round talent.
He’s talented and tenacious, going at every hitter aggressively, regardless of their pedigree.
“I’ve never seen him show anything different out there than just focused, confident, executing the pitch,” Flowers said. “The majority of time he does that, and even when he doesn’t you don’t see anything carry over to the next pitch or the next at-bat or the next inning.”
There were bumps on his road to the majors, but Minter learned valuable lessons about taking care of himself.
“Just go out there and the biggest thing is just listen to my own body,” he said. “Everyone’s different. Some people come back sore the next day (after throwing), some people come back good. So it’s really just finding my own body, listening to that, staying true to that.”
He won’t come out and say it, but everyone knows that Minter has a spot in the opening-day bullpen as long as he’s healthy. And not just a job, but a crucial job. He showed last year that his combination of upper-90s fastball and wipeout slider can be devastating against big-league hitters, that the “left-handed Kimbrel” comments over the past couple of years might not be so ridiculously premature after all.
“The biggest question really is can I stay healthy, not get hurt,” Minter said.
As for his expected role, he said, “Honestly I’m just trying to stay healthy, that way I can hopefully break with the team. That’s my No. 1 goal. I’m not worried about where, what inning I’m going to be in, whether it’s the sixth or closing the game out. It’s all the same to me. Go in, get your three guys out, put a zero on the board and help the team win a ball game.”