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Braves Minor League Recap: AJ Smith-Shawver goes seven innings

Smith-Shawver looked solid in his longest career start

Credit: Mills Fitzner

AJ Smith-Shawver has become the show in the Atlanta Braves system, and despite taking the loss he put up one of the best starts of his career. He handled the Durham Bulls across seven innings, touching 96.9 mph on the gun. Elsewhere David McCabe helped lead the Augusta GreenJackets to a victory, hitting his second home run in as many days as he keeps a torrid stretch of play going.

(21-26) Gwinnett Stripers 1, (25-22) Durham Bulls 2

Box Score

  • Vaughn Grissom, 2B: 0-3, BB, .333/.429/.531
  • Braden Shewmake, SS: 0-4, .234/.273/.452
  • AJ Smith-Shawver, SP: 7 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 8 K, 3.00 ERA

Gwinnett may have come up short against the Bulls, but they played undoubtedly the most interesting game as the Braves top prospect AJ Smith-Shawver was in action. Offensively there wasn’t much to speak of in this game, as a leadoff single from Forrest Wall and then three first inning walks accounted for the only Stripers run in the game. Gwinnett made a ninth inning comeback effort by getting two runners in scoring position, but a strikeout and a long fly out from Wall would end the game.

Well we all know none of us are here to focus on the exploits of Hoy Park and Chadwick Tromp, so let’s get into one of the best starts in the young career of AJ Smith-Shawver. The first inning saw Smith-Shawver just pound the Bulls with fastballs, only breaking out two curveballs in the inning which both finished off strikeouts. As the game entered the middle innings Smith-Shawver started to focus more on incorporating the slider and curveball and that was really where he had trouble in this game. Innings two and three weren’t much sweat as he increased his strikeout total to five, but the inconsistencies Smith-Shawver showed in his slider command in his first Gwinnett start were present in this one as well.

On most occasions Smith-Shawver was able to get away with poorly located sliders, but the fourth inning was his worst and started out with his first walk of the game. He got the inning to two outs but hung up a curveball to Tristan Gray which was smacked for a double at 112 mph. The next hitter jumped on a hanging slider to knock in Gray for the second run, which was the final Durham hit off of Smith-Shawver. The biggest positive for Smith-Shawver was his ability to maintain his stuff deep into the game as his final pitch of the sixth inning was a 96.9 mph fastball that was his hardest of the game. Seven innings is a career high for Smith-Shawver and showed off a lot of what he was missing last season, but the slider command in particular has been his primary concern. At the Triple-A level the league uses MLB balls which are different from the other levels of the minor leagues, and Smith-Shawver is likely experiencing an adjustment period that many players do where he’ll have to figure out how to get that slider back to the early season form that allowed him to have this quick ascent.

It should come given time, but I think it’s fair to say of Smith-Shawver that unless another injury makes the Braves desperate it would be a good idea to keep him down in the minor leagues. These types of performances will certainly fuel the hype and calls for his promotion, but right now I see a player who is clearly on the right path but also making mistakes that major league players simply wouldn’t let him get away with. However, I don’t want to make this sound too negative. Smith-Shawver was undoubtedly fantastic and on many occasions simply looked overpowering to Bulls hitters. His seventh inning strikeout of Kameron Misner was a perfect example. He put two fastballs right on top of the zone for the final two strikes, ending the at bat by blowing 96.1 mph right past him. Doing what he has at 20 years old is remarkable.

(18-23) Mississippi Braves 2, (27-15) Pensacola Blue Wahoos 6

Box Score

  • Cal Conley, 2B: 2-3, BB, .248/.335/.320
  • Drew Lugbauer, DH: 1-3, HR, HR, BB, .230/.346/.584
  • Domingo Robles, SP: 5 IP, 6 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 0 BB, 9 K, 2.45 ERA
  • Victor Vodnik, RP: 1.2 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 5.23 ERA

Just a fair warning that it wasn’t a prime day for the bats at any level, and Mississippi was no exception to that rule. Drew Lugbauer is, of course, still Drew Lugbauer and hit his tenth home run of the season to cut Pensacola’s lead to 4-2, but the bats were otherwise unable to produce. Cal Conley did have a good day at the plate with two hits and a walk, and while his overall numbers haven’t been great he has been putting up much better plate appearances than last season. Over his past 30 days Conley hasn’t hit for much power, but improved his plate discipline peripherals and in that span has an 11.9% walk rate and 17.4% strikeout rate.

Domingo Robles had a nasty first inning on the mound, but afterwards settled in to continue to be Mississippi’s most reliable pitcher. Robles allowed four consecutive singles in that first inning and a total of three runs, but over his final four innings allowed only two more hits. Robles leads the Braves system with 62 strikeouts in 44 13 innings, an extreme jump over his career numbers which is largely attributable to the Double-A sticky ball. Robles has a 2.45 ERA on the season and is seventh in the Southern League in strikeouts. Domingo Gonzalez backed up Robles with a sloppy outing as he needed to be pulled in the seventh inning after walking two batters. Victor Vodnik put out the fire in that inning but struggled in the eighth and allowed two runs on three hits.

(21-21) Rome Braves 2, (22-20) Greenville Drive 6

Box Score

  • Kevin Kilpatrick Jr., CF:1-3, BB, .230/.370/.392
  • Drake Baldwin, DH: 0-4, .225/.370/.468
  • Keshawn Ogans, SS: 2-4, 2B, .275/.419/.431
  • Ian Mejia, SP: 5.1 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 4 K, 4.46 ERA
  • Hayden Harris, RP: 1.2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 3 K, 6.43 ERA

A strong week in Hickory pushed Rome over .500 and only a couple of games out of first place, but they’ve struggled against Greenville this week and sunk back to .500. Drive starter Isaac Coffey was just better than the Rome bats, striking out eleven batters over six scoreless innings. The Braves did get a couple of hacks in off of him, including a second inning double from Keshawn Ogans to keep his hot streak going, but it wasn’t much of a battle and Rome was down 4-0 before they got into the bullpen. Fortunes flipped in the eighth inning when the first three Rome batters drew walks, and Geraldo Quintero drove in two runs with a single. However, on the play the Drive got Kevin Kilpatrick hung up in between second and third, recording the second out of the inning before striking out Adam Zebrowski to end the rally. Greenville then got both runs back in the top of the ninth, effectively ending any Rome hopes.

Ian Mejia put up another reasonable start, as he struck out three batters and allowed only one hit in the first two innings. Mejia then did as he has much of the year and struggled the second time through the order, allowing a run each in the third and fourth innings. The defense also didn’t provide him the best help, allowing an unearned run in during the fourth inning. Mejia’s fastball-curveball combination is a solid set of offerings, but it doesn’t really seem that he has the arsenal to be a starting pitcher. For now the Braves have been leaving him there, partially because they don’t really have a ton of arms at the High-A level ready to go out and consistently cover four to six innings, but his long term projection is definitely as a reliever. Across the first three innings of starts this season Mejia has a 1.71 ERA with 20 strikeouts, seven walks, and one home run allowed in 21 innings. Hayden Harris pitched 1 23 scoreless innings while striking out three batters, and the undrafted free agent signing from last season has had a weird season. Harris has 28 strikeouts to five walks in 15 13 innings this season, but due to a .500 BABIP and three home runs allowed has an 8.22 ERA across two levels.

(21-21) Augusta GreenJackets 4, (22-19) Kannapolis Cannon Ballers 3

Box Score

  • David McCabe, 3B: 1-4, HR, .268/.387/.464
  • Nick Clarno, C: 1-4, HR, 2 RBI, .191/.364/.309
  • Jared Johnson, SP: 3.2 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 4 BB, 6 K, 4.37 ERA
  • Jhancarlos Lara, RP: 4 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 6 K, 3.86 ERA

We finally have a win to talk about, and a team that decided to score on more than occasion in their game. The GreenJackets had a riveting three different scoring plays in the game, the same amount the other three affiliates had combined. Facing an early 2-0 deficit the Augusta had zero luck through three innings, but finally broke through with a leadoff single from Justin Janas in the fourth inning. Nick Clarno then delivered with a two run home run, tying the game and getting started Jared Johnson off the hook. The next inning Augusta got more going, as Andrew Keck led off being hit by a pitch then got around to third on a single from Tyler Collins. Jair Casanova couldn’t deliver a big hit to score both, but his groundout did bring in Keck to give Augusta the lead. David McCabe added on with a solo shot in the eighth inning and he has been Augusta’s best hitter over the past three weeks. In McCabe’s last 16 games he has been on fire with four home runs, a .373/.479/.678 line, and a strikeout rate of only 18.3%.

Jared Johnson is a fine relief prospect with a huge fastball and slider combination, but when tested over multiple innings he has not been fantastic and he struggled in this game. Johnson’s command is poor on a good day, and his four walks in 3 23 innings underline his biggest profile flaw. Johnson did strikeout six batters and has 36 now in 22 23 innings, so when the ball is around the zone he is as dominant as they come. Today he struggled, but fortunately didn’t actually pay the price for the walks as the runs he allowed came on a two-run home run in the second inning. Jhancarlos Lara had a marvelous relief outing, going four dominant innings with six strikeouts and no walks. Like Johnson, Lara has trouble finding the plate but has been dominant in short stints. Lara is just 20 years old, with his primary weapon being his slider, and has stuck out 31 batters in 21 innings this season after coming straight up from the Dominican Summer League team.

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