The Atlanta Braves are clearly not shy about promoting prospects more quickly than anyone ever imagined, but the promotion of AJ Smith-Shawver to the major leagues still finds a way to stand out for its aggression. Smith-Shawver was a high school arm just two years ago, and one known to be a project that while talented would likely take years to develop into a major leaguer. That projection has been turned completely on its head, and just 110 innings into his professional career AJ Smith-Shawver is going to be a major league baseball player.
AJ Smith-Shawver’s meteoric rise started just three years ago when he began pitching for Colleyville Heritage High School in Colleyville, Texas. Smith-Shawver was the school’s starting quarterback as well, and his arm talent translated immediately as he turned heads in spring of 2021. While he was quite clearly behind the curve of his more experienced peers, his athleticism jumped off of the page and it spurred the Braves to take him in the 7th round of the 2021 first year player draft. While this low selection does seem like a major steal, Smith-Shawver’s signing bonus betrayed the organization’s thoughts as they gave him $1,000,000 which is the equivalent of the slot value for a compensation pick between the second and third round. Smith-Shawver went to the spring training complex soon after his selection, and his lack of development showed with 10 walks in 8 1⁄3 innings across four starts.
First Triple-A strikeout for AJ Smith-Shawver— Gaurav (@gvedak) May 20, 2023
2139 RPM pic.twitter.com/ILoxYf2Ugj
Smith-Shawver’s first foray into professional baseball may not have generated immediate buzz, but throughout spring training he impressed scouts on the back fields and showed the first signs of a blossoming star. The most impressive aspect of Smith-Shawver even then was his rapid development, as he took to coaching well and broke camp in Single-A Augusta. Even in his first starts of the season it was clear just how far he had developed in just one offseason, displaying improvements in all three pitches along with hints of coming command. Smith-Shawver’s first full professional season came with numerous ups-and-downs, but what consistently showed for him was a dominant fastball and slider mix, along with the ability to mix in a changeup. He commanded his fastball surprisingly well, but overall he struggled going deep into games and his final numbers from last season aren’t particularly impressive. Due to an injury suffered late in the season and his inefficiency with his pitches all season, he had just 68 2⁄3 innings pitched in 2022 and never topped 90 pitches in a start. He was certainly overwhelming for that level of hitter, striking out 103 batters, but his wavering command led to 39 walks and a 5.11 ERA. He abandoned his changeup late in the season, opting instead to focus on the development of the slider, but he was much better than the numbers implied especially early in games.
We ranked Smith-Shawver as the number one prospect in the system going into 2023, and while we were confident in this ranking his injury and lack of high-level performances in 2022 still gave us a level of skepticism. He was the most talented arm in the system, but there was zero thought he would be ready even by 2024. Yet things were slowly coming together, and in two spring training games his ridiculous raw stuff impressed everyone who watched him play. Smith-Shawver made his season debut on April 16th, and it was clear early on that this was a different pitcher. The first notable change was his development of a new pitch — a curveball — which replaced the changeup as his third offering. The second was his improved command, specifically his slider command, which had him overwhelming High-A hitters. In three starts with Rome he struck out 23 of the 52 batters he faced, didn’t allow a single earned run, and had a .359 OPS against. His dominance was enough to force a quick promotion to Double-A Mississippi where he was already the youngest drafted player in the league. Smith-Shawver made a rainy debut against the Southern League’s best team the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, and unfortunately it only lasted two innings as rain delayed the game. A week later he made his second Double-A start and with the help of an experimental sticky ball that’s being used in the league this year it was a bit ridiculous in the early going. Smith-Shawver struck out seven batters in his first three innings and finished with five scoreless innings and apparently enough of a performance to force an immediate promotion to Triple-A.
AJ Smith-Shawver with his third strikeout of the game. Statcast still identifying his slider as a cutter - 85.9 MPH, 1950 RPM pic.twitter.com/MPK73SwKCC— Gaurav (@gvedak) May 20, 2023
AJ Smith-Shawver made his first start with the Gwinnett Stripers on May 19th, and it posed an important challenge for him. His raw stuff was enough to simply overpower lower level hitters, and the Braves thought it was important to see him against players that had more advanced approaches akin to what he could see at the major league level. Smith-Shawver came in and passed this first test, going five innings and allowing two earned runs while striking out five batters. The one big hit against him was a home run from Cardinals top prospect Jordan Walker, who should honestly be in the major leagues right now, and it was a well-located fastball that a player just beat him on. Overall he looked great, though with the caveat that he seemed to have trouble locating his slider. On May 25th Smith-Shawver got the assignment against the Durham Bulls, and much like his first start the slider wasn’t at its best. What was working for Smith-Shawver was his curveball, which recorded four of his eight strikeouts. Smith-Shawver was barely landing the pitch near the zone in his first start of the season, but in just seven starts has gotten a good enough feel for it to make it a primary weapon to attack hitters with. This underlines the earlier point of just how drastic his development has been, as he has improved far quicker than anyone could have expected when he was drafted. Overall Smith-Shawver pitched a career-high seven innings on just 86 pitches, and his efficiency has improved greatly this season. He still has never thrown more than 88 pitches in a game, but unlike last year he was able to hold his velocity deep into his last game and hit 96 mph in the seventh inning.
As impressive as the last start in Gwinnett was, it’s still a complete shock to see this move made so quickly. Smith-Shawver has pitched a total of 110 professional innings, and it’s not like he is a player that was known to be advanced when he was drafted. Spencer Strider was notable for how quickly he got to the major leagues, and even he pitched 94 professional innings along with 89 2⁄3 innings in college and summer leagues following his prep career. Michael Soroka is the most recent prep pitcher to develop rapidly the Braves system, and he pitched over 300 innings at the minor league level. It’s an incredibly rise for a pitcher in this day and age, and it’s going to bring with it a lot for Smith-Shawver and the Braves to prove. What Smith-Shawver has working in his favor is his makeup, which has been widely praised even going back to immediately after the draft. He’s a hardworker who has been able to harness his elite athleticism into rapid development, and is a poised player who has been able to handle being bounced through the system. These traits contribute to the Braves confidence in him.
Smith-Shawver’s primary weapon is his fastball, which in his most recent Triple-A start averaged 95.1 mph per Baseball Savant. He topped out at 97.7 mph in his debut and can get up there, but tends to run out of gas quickly when he tries to sit at his higher velocity. He produces above average vertical movement on his fastball, and gets a solid number of whiffs along with producing weak fly balls and pop ups at a high rate. His command is of the pitch is inconsistent but improving at this stage. He looks to pound the top of the zone with his fastball and is dominant when he is able to do so, but his delivery tends to fall off towards his glove side which causes pitches to veer off of his intended target. Smith-Shawver throws a hard slider around 81-85 mph, and its effectiveness is more based on velocity than raw movement. Spin and movement is average, but early in the season he was commanding it extremely well to the arm side and the combination of that velocity and location made it a plus offering. Unfortunately he has struggled with the pitch in his two starts at Triple-A, which could be attributable to that level using the major league ball as opposed to the ball that is used at the lower levels which has higher seems and a less slick surface. This is just an adjustment he’s going to have to make, and given his history of success with the pitch along with his history of being able to develop quickly it seems reasonable to expect he will iron out the kinks here. He still uses his curveball as a distant third pitch less than 10% of the time, but so far he has been impressive. It’s been better than his slider in his two Triple-A starts, showing a more consistent shape and command. It’s flashed above average potential and gives him a viable third weapon, though he still needs to get a more consistent feel and learn to better utilize it. Overall his arsenal is still raw, but he’s improved it dramatically and the addition of his curveball gives him a good chance to stick as a starting pitcher.
Smith-Shawver will indeed be used out of the bullpen for now, as the #Braves did with Fried early in his first two seasons.— David O'Brien (@DOBrienATL) May 30, 2023
It appears the Braves will use Smith-Shawver out of the bullpen initially, and I have to agree with that decision. Long term I do think Smith-Shawver sticks as a starter, but he’s had so little development that it would be hard for him to face major league lineups multiple times through. In a bullpen role Smith-Shawver should be able to just let loose, and we’ll see him consistently in the 96-98 mph range while presumably utilizing his slider as his primary secondary pitch. I think he can be an impact arm for this team in that role, helping a team that has overall performed well but has struggled to get consistency outside of Nick Anderson. I don’t think Smith-Shawver is necessarily the answer to getting consistency and he will struggle on the days that his mechanics are off, but he has the profile of a player who can get outs at a high rate in short spurts while leaning on his fastball. Smith-Shawver has shown at every level that at the very least that he can be a lineup wrecker that first time through, and this gives him an opportunity to see a challenge while not immediately being expected to answer the Braves rotation questions. Smith-Shawver is just now getting fringe top 100 attention nationally, but I think that underrates his value. He certainly has questions to answer surrounding the consistency of his command and ability to pitch deep into games, but his early development and raw skillset has given me enough confidence to believe he will stick as a solid major league starter with the upside of a #2.