Minter’s a strikeout machine poised for big role in bullpen

His highly anticipated big-league arrival last season was delayed by nagging injuries, but once Braves reliever A.J. Minter made it to the majors, he showed why a man described him in the minors as a future major league closer and why some people go so far as to call him a left-handed version of Craig Kimbrel.

While the Kimbrel comparison might be getting a bit carried away at this point of Minter’s fledgling career, suffice to say the two sturdily built sub-6-foot flamethrowers have things in common including a wipeout breaking ball to complement their fastball, and eye-popping strikeout rates as a result.

Minter, 24, made his major league debut in late August and proceeded to record 26 strikeouts with only two walks in 15 innings while posting a 3.00 ERA in 16 appearances, allowing 13 hits.

His strikeout rate of 15.6 per nine innings ranked among the best in major league history for a rookie in 15 or more innings, not far off the jaw-dropping 40 strikeouts that Kimbrel had in 20 2/3 innings (17.4 per nine innings) during his debut season with the Braves in 2010. 

Minter’s rate was just ahead of the 14.8 per nine innings that Kimbrel had in his first full season in 2011, when the then-Braves closer had a league-high 46 saves and 127 strikeouts in 77 innings and was National League Rookie of the Year and finished ninth in Cy Young Award balloting.

“(Minter) has got a chance of being special, Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “Coming to camp now he’s healthy, he had a normal offseason where he wasn’t rehabbing any kind of an injury. And I think that’s big for these guys once they go through that, to have an offseason where just getting healthy isn’t the focus, they can train and get themselves ready. 

“This kid has a chance of being a really big part of our bullpen if he’s healthy and can handle that normal major league load. ... He’s got a chance of just being really electric.”

Kimbrel has built a stunning 14.8 strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate for his entire career, including 16.4 last season for Boston in his seventh full major league season and fifth All-Star season.

Is Minter ready to maintain for a full season anything close to the torrid strikeout pace he had in his late-season call-up? We’ll find out 2018 because there’s no doubt the lefty from Tyler, Texas, will have a crucial role in the Braves’ bullpen provided he stays healthy.

“As I’ve played baseball for a while now, I learned there’s a lot of things you can’t control,” Minter said about his strikeout rate. “Once that ball leaves my hand, I can’t control what the hitter does. The only thing I can control is throwing strikes, and to keep it super-simple I try to keep my walks down. That’s the only thing I can control. Keep my walks down and I should be in a good place.”

Minter reported to spring training this week fit and eager to get started.

“It helps out tremendously,” he said of last year’s major league call-up. “I’m really just picking up where I left off. That’s the plan. Felt good going into the offseason. My main goal is not really trying to do too much, just stay healthy, that’s about it. Just really looking forward to getting back to it.”

Minter was a second-round pick by the Braves in the 2015 draft out of Texas A&M, and likely would’ve been a first-round pick if he weren’t recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery at the time. He didn’t pitch until 2016, when the Braves kept him on a conservative plan with plenty of rest between appearances and he dominated to the tune of a 1.30 ERA with 47 strikeouts and no homers allowed in 34 2/3 innings.

He went to 2017 spring training with hopes of winning a major-league roster spot. But an inflamed nerve near his pitching elbow during sprint training quashed that possibility, and a strained adductor (groin) muscle in April caused him to miss two months of the minor league season and led the Braves to be cautious again with his workload once he returned.

After pitching at four different minor league levels last season and getting his strength back following the long injury rehab, Minter took advantage of his first major league opportunity, producing a better ERA and strikeout rate than he had in the minors during 2017. 

Now he’s back in big-league camp, ready for his first schedule of Grapefruit League games and eager to show he can handle a full workload. Minter looks a little stronger in the upper body but said more of his offseason work was focused on his legs, which were already muscular and not resemble tree trunks.

Yes, he spent plenty of time in a gym back home in Texas this winter.

“I did, but it was more smart lifting than anything, not trying to get too big,” he said. “Trying to fix the groin where I got hurt last year, trying to get the lower half strong.”

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