If you’re an Atlanta Braves pitching prospect with some modicum of minor league success at this point, well, don’t sign a long-term lease at a minor league stop, because you’re going to be flying through the system. Spencer Strider pitched at five different levels, including MLB, in his pro debut season. Bryce Elder went from 2020 draftee to 2022 MLB debutee, pitching at three different levels in his pro debut season. And then you have AJ Smith-Shawver, drafted in 2021, who made his own whirlwind tour of the southeast this past season, playing at four different levels and garnering multiple stints at the MLB level over the course of the year.
The Braves selected Smith-Shawver in the seventh round of the 2021 MLB Draft out of Colleyville Heritage High School in Texas. He received an overslot bonus of just under $1 million to forgo a commitment to Texas Tech University.
He made a few post-draft starts in the FCL, and then spent all of 2022 in A-ball at Augusta until an injury ended his season in August.
What were the expectations?
Given that Smith-Shawver hadn’t appeared above A-ball, the main expectation for him was to spend 2023 in Rome after getting healthy. Suffice to say, the Braves are more than happy to oblige performers with promotions in a way that blows past any kind of expectation of steady progression.
Despite being in the organization, he did not appear on Dan Szymborski’s list of Braves players with ZiPS projections ahead of the season.
Despite the (lack of) expectations, another whirlwind season for a young Braves pitcher ensued. Smith-Shawver started in Rome with three dominant starts, and quickly got promoted to Double-A, where he had two more good efforts. That got him shunted up to Triple-A, where he had two more solid outings (the second much better than the first), and the Braves then selected his contract to the big league team.
Smith-Shawver made a relief appearance for his MLB debut on June 4, and then entered the rotation, making three straight starts. He then returned to Triple-A, but for a couple of MLB spot starts over the next few months.
In the majors, Smith-Shawver contributed 25 1⁄3 innings over six appearances, including five starts. He had a 96 ERA-, 155 FIP-, and 130 xFIP-. The brightest spot in his profile was a strong xERA, akin to an 88ish xERA-, but the poor K/BB ratio (1.82) really dragged down his MLB performance. Still, it was just a few innings as a 20-year-old, so it’s hard to be too concerned. Still, the -0.3 fWAR he racked up will be something he needs to negate before he starts racking up career value.
What went right?
As you can probably tell by the pitching line in the prior paragraph, Smith-Shawver’s season was fairly disjointed in terms of inputs and outputs, so it’s hard to say that any of his six outings unequivocally went “right.” Three of his six outings saw one or zero earned runs charged to him, and a better-than-average FIP. In addition, he had a better-than-average xFIP in two outings, only one of which (his first outing, the relief appearance) overlapped with the good ERA/FIP outings. Four of his outings had a below-average (i.e., good) xwOBA-against.
Pitch-wise, he worked in a four-pitch mix. His slider had a decent in general, but not-for-a-slider, xwOBA-against of .304, and the 48 changeups he threw resulted in an insane .068 xwOBA-against with a 50 percent whiff rate when batters offered. The pitch shapes of his four-seamer and curve already look phenomenal, but as described below, he’s definitely got some kinks to work out.
Smith-Shawver probably bought himself his other starts in June by throwing 5 1⁄3 innings of two-unearned-run ball with a 2/2 K/BB ratio against the Nationals in his first career start. The Braves won that game, 3-2, late, and Smith-Shawver got by on a bunch of weak contact. (For some reason this video literally only has his two strikeouts in this game.)
Also, check out this pretty cool slider:
What went wrong?
The bottom line is that in his major league outings, Smith-Shawver just didn’t do enough to get over any kind of hump beyond “young kid throwing MLB innings for the first time.” At his best, he was either getting contact-heavy lineups to chase or make weak contact, or pounding the zone in a way that made him very vulnerable to getting taken deep; he never really had an eye-opening, “That’s what I’m talking about!” outing. But then again, it was six tries, so there wasn’t exactly a big opportunity for him to unfurl that sort of banner, either.
Entirely unsurprisingly, because this is an affliction that affects most pitchers, especially 20-year-olds that rocketed through the minors and haven’t even been pitching for a half-decade, Smith-Shawver’s command essentially didn’t exist, at least not in any beneficial way.
The only pitch with any consistency in location was his four-seamer, and it was thrown down the middle or below, utterly failing to take advantage of its good shape. You can see what Smith-Shawver wanted to do with his slider, but the execution was terrible. The curve should’ve been able to play well off his fastball, but he couldn’t get it down, or really anywhere else — while you could argue that he wanted to use his curve as a Max Fried/Ian Anderson-esque “drop in for an early strike” pitch, that seems as much an accident as any other location. You get the idea.
Smith-Shawver’s start against the Reds, which ended his short-lived tenure in the rotation, was a good exemplar of his struggles. The Braves handed him a 5-0 lead before he took the mound; he gave up a homer each in the second, third, and fourth innings to give those runs right back. The first homer, by Jake Fraley, was on a good elevated fastball where he just got beat, but the next two were on a hanging curveball to Elly de la Cruz, and a non-elevated fastball to Joey Votto.
Smith-Shawver also failed to distinguish himself in either of his spot starts. His start against the Brewers was terrible (3/4 K/BB ratio, two homers allowed) and he managed just a 2/1 K/BB ratio in 3 1⁄3 innings against the Cubs to wrap up the year. He was blowing past a career high in innings at that point, so it’s hard to hold these outings against him, but there’s work to be done to sand away the rough edges, to say the least.
Perhaps the biggest concern about Smith-Shawver was that he didn’t really fall squarely into the “too good for Triple-A, still figuring it out in MLB” wedge in his eight starts at Gwinnett, post-demotion. While he was striking out a ton of International League batters (over 27 percent of the ones he faced), his walk rate was an unseemly 16.9 percent in the process; his Triple-A FIP and xFIP were both in the mid-to-high 4.00s. This may mean that the Braves will look to see whether he can actually figure out how to succeed at Triple-A before throwing him into the deep end again.
Smith-Shawver enters 2024 as one of multiple arms that will probably rotate around and chip in innings for the team throughout the course of the season. Either that, or, he could be traded before the season begins. Steamer currently projects him to be a modest contributor (0.6 WAR) in a swing role (93 innings, including 13 starts and 21 relief appearances); ZiPS sees him as an average-y short-stint starter with 1.2 WAR in 101 innings.
The opportunity will almost certainly be there for Smith-Shawver to hit the ground running better than he did at the MLB level in 2023; the question is whether he can carve out enough of a path forward given what he already has (great pitch shapes) and what he’s lacked to date (command).