The Atlanta Braves made an aggressive move this week, and have promoted their top prospect in the system, RHP AJ Smith-Shawver to Double-A Mississippi. The 20 year old Smith-Shawver has pitched just 14 innings at High-A after 68 ⅔ in Single-A last season, but has dominated South Atlantic League hitters so thoroughly that he managed to force the issue.
Smith-Shawver was expected to be a project pick when they took him in the 7th round of the 2021 draft. Smith-Shawver was a star on the mound and on the gridiron at Colleyville Heritage High School in Texas, but had little experience on the mound. Still the Braves took a chance on his arm talent and athleticism and he has blown away expectations in his early career. Smith-Shawver impressed us enough in 2022 to be named our top prospect in the system going into this season.
Smith-Shawver battled with his stamina last season on the way to a 5.11 ERA, but in 2023 he has been the best player on the field every time he has stepped out there. His first start was an eye-opening performance as he struck out 8 batters over 4 ⅔ innings, then he backed that up with a 9 strikeout performance in his second outing. Smith-Shawver then fell off a bit in his third and most recent outing, and by falling off I mean he struck out six batters over five scoreless innings and was named South Atlantic League pitcher of the week.
From a statistical perspective he was a man amongst boys, but in watching the games the gulf is even more apparent. Smith-Shawver has been overpowering opponents with his rising mid-90’s fastball and then putting them to bed with a slider that has flashed double-plus action in games. Further development to his arsenal has come in the form of a slower curveball that he can change pace on and used to great effect in his latest outing. With another pitch that flashes plus Smith-Shawver now has easily the best pitch mix in the system and has made strides in his command much earlier than expected. While he is not yet getting love in top 100 lists that will change this summer, and there could be real debate for having him even within the sport’s top 50. No other player age 20 or younger in all of minor league baseball is striking out as many batters as Smith-Shawver.
At every level the most reliable markers (among publicly available data) for pitchers are strikeout rate, walk rate, and age relative to competition. Smith-Shawver excelling in all three facets is a promising sign— Garrett Spain (@BravesMILB) April 30, 2023
Double-A will test the fringes of Smith-Shawver’s command and is the first level he’s reached where there will be hitters who are capable of handling a slider as good as his. I still think dominance should be expected, but walks will likely tick up and he could be prone to home runs given the action on his fastball and tendency to miss in the zone. Even a player like Spencer Strider faced those same issues, but Smith-Shawver even reaching Double-A at this age is an achievement. It is a move that certainly accelerates his timeline, and the Braves have made it clear that any player is on the table for promotion once they reach Double-A. There is little reason to believe Smith-Shawver is currently in Atlanta’s plans this season, but if he can continue his command improvements and dominance there is an outside shot he gets a bullpen audition late this season. In any case, Smith-Shawver has firmly put his name on the radar for 2024 where he will likely be at the very least close to a major league opportunity.