The Gwinnett Stripers may have finished the 2022 season with a losing record for the first time since 2016, but through the eyes of the Atlanta Braves, the campaign was another huge success.
Gwinnett was a team built to supplement the contending Braves in the short term, stashing both the next wave of young pitching talent and a clubhouse full of veteran position players ready to make the 35-mile trip to Truist Park on short notice. And with 28 players appearing for both Gwinnett and Atlanta in 2022, including rehabbing Braves’ superstars Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies, the Stripers certainly accomplished their goal.
Between Chadwick Tromp’s torrid streak in May, Bryce Elder’s eight-inning gem on Memorial Day, Kyle Muller’s dominant month of June, and Michael Tonkin’s scoreless streak spanning nearly all of June and July, fans at Coolray Field this year were treated to many memorable and awe-inspiring performances from prospects and Major League veterans alike.
HISTORIC SEASON FOR PITCHING STAFF
While the Stripers struggled offensively in 2022, the pitching staff was one of the International League’s most dominant. Gwinnett hurlers paced the circuit in strikeouts (1,421) for the first time since 2011, shattering the previous team record of 1,223 and snapping the Durham Bulls’ nine-season league-leading streak. Leading the way was the tall southpaw Kyle Muller, the Braves’ top prospect according to MLB Pipeline. Muller fanned an IL-leading 159 hitters, setting a new Gwinnett single-season record.
“Kyle has led the way for the staff, and he’s put together a really impressive year here,” said Stripers’ manager Matt Tuiasosopo. “He’s done exactly what we envisioned he could do and grown as a pitcher – a complete pitcher. He’s improved his attack, he’s been in the zone a lot more, and consistently made more competitive pitches, so seeing that growth from last year to this year, he’s done a great job.”
Muller attributes his and the team’s strikeout success to an ideology encouraged throughout the Braves’ organization.
“Attack is something we’re preaching as an organization,” he said. “Everything is a lot easier when you throw strikes, and I know that doesn’t seem very profound, but if you can battle and throw competitive pitches and make them get themselves out, more often than not that’s going to lead to good outings. The best hitters are getting out seven out of ten times, so if you can really believe in that and play those odds and do whatever you need to do to get the ball in the zone, it’s going to work.”
The Stripers stumbled out of the gate to start the year, sitting at 6-12 on April 24. The club had just dropped nine of their last 11, and recently suffered a team-record 29.2-inning scoreless drought. But brighter days were just around the corner for the Stripers’ offense.
Fueled by the crowds at Coolray Field, the Stripers went 9-3 during an exciting two-week homestand from April 26 to May 8, climbing all the way back to .500. The 12-game surge included a brief rehab appearance by Braves’ star Ronald Acuña Jr., consecutive shutout victories (8-0 and 5-0 over Norfolk), Drew Waters’ walk-off single capping off a three-run rally in a 6-5 win over Charlotte on Mother’s Day, and a multi-homer game by Chadwick Tromp.
Tromp’s two-homer, four-RBI game on May 3 vs. Charlotte came in the heart of a white-hot stretch where the Aruban catcher drove in a run in 11 consecutive games, easily the longest streak of its kind in the IL this season. Tromp also tallied an extra-base hit in nine straight games during the stretch, tied for the longest in the IL this year. For his efforts, he was named IL Player of the Week for May 2-8.
“During Tromp’s streak, every time he stepped in the box, you knew he was going to do something special,” Tuiasosopo said.
The Stripers flirted with .500 over the next three series, putting together a four-game winning streak against Memphis, but also suffering a five-game losing streak at the hands of the Durham Bulls and Redbirds.
Back at .500, the Stripers kicked off a six-game set against the Louisville Bats. Bryce Elder took the ball in the series opener on Memorial Day and mowed through the Louisville lineup for 8.0 innings, allowing just two hits and striking out eight in a 2-0 triumph. The Stripers went 15-11 in May, their lone winning month of the season.
June opened with a thrilling walk-off win, as Phil Gosselin sent fans home happy with a 10th-inning walk-off double to beat Louisville 8-7 in 10 innings.
Muller tossed a 7.0-inning gem the next night in a 5-3 win, his first of five consecutive quality starts in June. He finished the month with a 2-1 record, posting a Triple-A-leading 1.87 ERA, limiting opposing hitters to a .171 batting average, and punching out 43 batters over 33.2 innings. When it came to naming the IL Pitcher of the Month for June, the choice was clear.
Muller’s excellent effort stemmed from a tough Major League start in May, a 2.2-inning outing in Arlington, Texas.
“It helped me go back to the drawing board and figure out what setups do I like from the catcher, what helps me subconsciously execute my pitches and my ideas better. I came back here with the mindset of trying to get back, then put a couple of good outings together,” Muller said.
Despite Muller’s masterful month, Gwinnett continued their tango with the .500 mark throughout June, sitting at 36-39 at month’s end.
The team continued to hold steady going into the All-Star Break, boasting a 44-46 record. The Stripers had much better luck at home in the first half with 29 home victories, ranking third in the IL. But their 15 wins on the road was the second worst on the circuit. After grabbing the first two games of the second half, Gwinnett was back at 46-46, but it was the last time they would get to .500 in 2022.
The roster saw a bit of a shake-up around the trade deadline. Longtime Gwinnett staples Touki Toussaint, Tucker Davidson, and Drew Waters were all dealt, with Toussaint and Davidson going to the Los Angeles Angels in separate deals and Waters headlining a trade with the Kansas City Royals. But with those trades, and the Braves frequently recalling top pitching talents like Elder and Muller, the Stripers lost a lot of depth. Losing shortstop and No. 8 prospect Braden Shewmake and veteran outfielder Preston Tucker to injuries on back-to-back August nights in Charlotte was also a major blow.
But the Stripers held on. After falling back to 51-58, Gwinnett fired off six straight wins against Nashville and Memphis from August 13-19, with two secured in extra innings and another coming via a brilliant 1-0 shutout started by Ian Anderson on August 19.
Even as the pitching continued to thrive with the additions of prospects Freddy Tarnok (No. 2), Jared Shuster (No. 2), Darius Vines (No. 16), and Dylan Dodd (No. 17), the offense mustered a .227 batting average from August 20 onward.
“I asked a lot of them, but they continued to play hard,” Tuiasosopo said. “We could never really get on a run. We’d have a couple of weeks where we’d win four or five out of six, but never could really go on that two-week swing where we went to work and could gain some ground on the teams above us. We played a lot of really good teams and a lot of good pitching in this league.”
But not everyone went cold all at once. Midseason acquisition Taylor Motter homered in his first Gwinnett plate appearance on July 30 vs. Jacksonville, then won IL Player of the Week for September 2-8 after batting an absurd .600 over five games and hitting four home runs in two days. Hernan Perez returned from injury on August 10, then emerged as one of the league’s top hitters from August 14 to September 14, batting .385 (2nd in the IL), driving in 20, and going a perfect 13-for-13 in stolen-base attempts. In 24 games over the span, Perez had 11 multi-hit performances, including a four-hit showing on August 21 vs. Memphis.
“Hernan has put together a really good finish. It just took a bit of time to get him going because he was coming from Mexico, so it was just a matter of getting him into his rhythm. But he’s been a big threat in our lineup,” Tuiasosopo said.
Ozzie Albies joined the squad on rehab assignment on September 1, appearing in just seven games before returning to Atlanta on September 16. But Albies managed to deliver the performance of the Stripers’ season during his short stint. Entering the bottom of the ninth tied 4-4 against Durham on September 13, Albies smashed a fly ball over the center field fence for a solo homer, completing a 5-for-5 game and sending the Stripers into a frenzy with a 5-4 win. His walk-off clout was Gwinnett’s first since Orlando Arcia did it on May 16, 2021 vs. Louisville. Albies’ five hit matched a team single-game record last achieved by Gwinnett fan-favorite Sean Kazmar Jr. on August 28, 2019 vs. Norfolk.
The Stripers had a lot of big-league presence in the lineup this season. Pat Valaika and Delino DeShields Jr. both appeared in over 100 games. Alex Dickerson joined the club in early May and played in 92 games. Ryan Goins played in 90 games. And while not everyone clicked offensively all at once, the impact of having the experience of thousands of MLB games in your lineup far outweighs some offensive hiccups. Just ask No. 12 prospect Justyn-Henry Malloy, who joined the team for the final two series of the year.
“Everyone has been very helpful just reminding me that it’s the same game, [the mound] is still 60 feet away, you still hit the same white ball,” Malloy said in a September interview with Stripers’ broadcaster Dave Lezotte. “What I really wanted to do over the nine days I’m here is just be a sponge. Be in the cage, watch how these guys operate and move on a day-to-day basis, and really just learn how to be a big leaguer. A lot of these guys have had so much big-league experience.”
The Stripers had a bona fide ace in Muller, who finished 6-8 with a 3.41 ERA over 23 starts. The left-hander also tossed a team-high 12 quality starts on his way to winning the Stripers’ Most Outstanding Pitcher and Stripers’ Fan Favorite awards.
“This is the first year where I’ve felt comfortable with who I am as a pitcher, knowing what I do well and how to execute those ideas,” Muller said. “I think I’m starting to put the whole puzzle together. I’ve been having to do it piece by piece over the last six years and I’m starting to see the culmination of all that hard work.”
Closer Michael Tonkin also put together a strong campaign out of the bullpen, ranking third in the IL with 16 saves and earning the Stripers’ Most Outstanding Reliever award. The 6’7” righty did not allow a run in 16.2 innings over 15 appearances from June 5 to July 22, then again held opponents scoreless over his last eight appearances of 2022.
After joining the organization in late April from the Mexican League, Hernan Perez impressed the clubhouse and earned the Stripers’ Most Competitive Player award. The 31-year-old infielder out of Venezuela appeared at every position in the field aside from pitcher and catcher, making over 10 appearances at second base (27G), right field (16G), third base (13G), left field (11G), and first base (11G).
Perez may be the finest example of the defensive flexibility and utility the more experienced players gave the Stripers, but he certainly isn’t the only one. The Stripers’ Most Valuable Player Pat Valaika led the team in hits, doubles, RBIs, plate appearances, and games. The 30-year-old California native played over 100 innings at every infield position.
“You couldn’t take him out of the lineup,” Tuiasosopo said. “Every time I asked him if he needed a day, it was ‘No, do not give me a day. I’m playing.’ He struggled through some injuries, and he had a knee thing, and even then he was like ‘I’m good, play me.’ So he’s a guy who will play through anything, will play through pain, give you everything he has every night, and play anywhere you need him.”
Outfielder Delino DeShields Jr. was the only other Striper with enough plate appearances to qualify for the IL batting title. DeShields finished 11th in the IL in on-base percentage (.367) thanks to his Gwinnett single-season record 76 walks – good for fifth in the league. He also finished tied for fourth in the circuit in stolen bases with 35, the most steals by a Gwinnett player since 2016.
“I’m proud of the guys that have weathered the storm and continued to battle each day,” Tuiasosopo said. “We’ve had our moments. But the beauty is that these guys compete every day, they ‘control-alt-delete’ as I always say. On to the next one. They continue to encourage each other and build each other up every day. It’s a long season.”
The Stripers’ Opening Night roster featured quite a few prospects near the top of the Braves’ Top 30 list, with OF Drew Waters (No. 3 at the time), LHP Kyle Muller (No. 4), RHP Bryce Elder (No. 5), and SS Braden Shewmake (No. 6) all with the club.
With Waters being traded to Kansas City on July 11 and the graduations of Michael Harris II and Vaughn Grissom, Muller stepped into the top prospect spot. But Elder also showed out, first in Atlanta in his Major League debut, then under the lights at Coolray Field. After an up-and-down May and June, Elder went 3-1 with a 2.70 ERA in his final eight appearances with Gwinnett. He also tossed some gems for the Braves throughout the year, throwing his first MLB quality start on August 14 in Miami, then a complete-game shutout in Washington on September 26.
“Seeing guys go from here to Atlanta and watching them on the TV and seeing them help out and contribute, there is nothing better than that,” Tuiasosopo said.
Shewmake got his first taste of Triple-A this season, hitting .295 in April then putting up a pair of four-hit games in May. He remained an integral part of the Gwinnett lineup and a defensive stalwart up until he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Charlotte on August 6.
“It’s really unfortunate that he got hurt,” Tuiasosopo said. “I think he was having a really solid first Triple-A season, and he had some streaks where he showed that he was one of the better hitters in this league. Hopefully he heals up quickly.”
A steady wave of promotions throughout the season refilled the Stripers roster with prospects. RHP William Woods (No. 26) joined Gwinnett in April but missed two months due to injury. Woods made 18 relief appearances for the Stripers. Hard-throwing RHP Victor Vodnik (No. 10) earned his promotion in May, posting a 2.93 ERA in 24 appearances out of the bullpen for Gwinnett.
Freddy Tarnok (No. 7) joined the Stripers in early July, making 10 appearances (8 starts) for Gwinnett and posting a 3.68 ERA. Tarnok also made his Major League debut with Atlanta this season. Southpaw Jared Shuster (No. 2) earned his promotion in late July, finishing 1-3 with a 4.25 ERA in 10 games (9 starts). Righty Darius Vines (No. 16) earned the call in late August, going 1-0 with a 3.21 ERA in seven games (5 starts).
The Braves’ No. 12 prospect Justyn-Henry Malloy played in the final two series of the year for Gwinnett, hitting .280 (7-for-25) with a home run, six RBIs, and two stolen bases. Lefty Dylan Dodd (No. 17) made a single start for Gwinnett at the end of the season, tossing 6.2 quality innings and earning a win against the Memphis Redbirds.
Even with the graduation and progression of the most advanced prospects, the Stripers could have a rotation full of young pitching prospects next season, and a lineup anchored by Malloy and a healthy Shewmake.
TUIASOSOPO EARNING HONORS
Stripers’ skipper Matt Tuiasosopo earned some much-deserved recognition as well this season, serving as third base coach for the National League in the 2022 All-Star Futures Game in Los Angeles in July, and being named manager of the Scottsdale Scorpions of the Arizona Fall League.
“It’s definitely an honor to be in the position to go through the experience that I had in L.A. with the Futures Game and I look forward to the Fall League, but my focus is giving the Braves everything I have,” Tuiasosopo said.
The Scorpions are made up of prospects from the Braves, Boston Red Sox, Baltimore Orioles, Los Angeles Angels, and San Francisco Giants. Malloy and RHP Allan Winans are some other familiar faces one will see in the Scorpions’ red jerseys. The honor is a testament to the efforts of Tuiasosopo and staff in developing their players.
“I’ve had a lot of people help me in this transition to player development. I’ve been surrounded every year with a great staff. We continue to sharpen each other, continue to work hard, and give these players everything that we have,” he said.
It’s also a testament to the clubhouse environment Tuiasosopo and crew have created in Gwinnett.
“It’s an easy place to show up and play every day,” Muller said.
ON TO 2023
The Gwinnett Stripers’ 2023 season will begin March 31, 2023 at Coolray Field against the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp. For a full season schedule, visit GoStripers.com.