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AJ Smith-Shawver ascends to the rotation as Braves look to keep rolling

The Braves go for their sixth win in a row as they open a series with the Nationals

Atlanta Braves v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

The Braves have been buzzy, and definitely worth buzzing about. After a down-to-their-last-out go-ahead grand slam delivered a series win in Arizona, they returned home and pantsed the Mets with three huge comebacks in three games. If that wasn’t enough excitement for you, though, they’re delivering some more on Friday night, as AJ Smith-Shawver is on tap to make his first career start.

If you got used to the breakneck pace at which the Braves promoted prospects in the last few years, well, they’re trying to give you whiplash again. Smith-Shawver started the year in High-A, and dominated in three starts. Then he went to Double-A, didn’t allow a run, but had only okay-ish peripherals in two starts. No matter, up he went to Triple-A, where after two so-so starts, he got the call to the majors. He gave Atlanta a glimpse of what he could do by tossing seven outs without being charged with a run against the Diamondbacks ahead of that game-winning grand slam, and now, he’s going to make at least one major league start before the Braves figure out what’s next.

Across those eight batters, Smith-Shawver showcased a three-pitch mix, throwing 22 four-seamers, 13 sliders, and four curveballs. His sliders were up, but didn’t get punished and got some whiffs. The fastball mostly faded to the armside part of the zone and didn’t miss bats, but also avoided hard contact. There’s not too much more to say, though I’m sure we’ll have a ton more to discuss after this game. One thing to keep an eye on might be the seam-shifted wake on his slider, which was very prominent in his relief outing.

Atlanta’s bats have been frenzied — they’ve scored no fewer than five runs in any of the games on their five-game winning streak. They now have the league’s third-highest wRC+ and even its third-highest OBP despite a middling walk rate — they are simply hitting the ball so hard that it’s hard to keep them off, or from trotting around, the bases. The team’s average exit velocity on a batted ball is 91.2 mph; the next-closest team is at 90.1. That 1.1 mph gap is also the gap between the second-highest team and the one with the 18th-highest average exit velocity, which is a testament to just how much these guys want to murder baseballs.

As for the Nationals, they are not big into murdering baseballs. Their 96 team wRC+ ranks 21st, they’re 24th in position player fWAR, and 28th in pitching fWAR. After failing to feast on the league’s worst bullpen in Oakland, the Braves upended a couple of other shoddy ones during their winning streak, and they’ll get the chance to do so again this weekend: Washington’s relief corps has negative fWAR and is between the Mets (27th) and Oakland (30th) in that regard.

To counter Smith-Shawver, the Nationals will throw familiar face Josiah Gray at the Braves in the opener. Now in his third season, the 25-year-old right-hander has done fine for himself, especially when contrasted with a dreadful 2022 campaign that saw him allow homer and homer en route to a below-replacement season. Gray’s 70 ERA- is nowhere near being supported by his 108 FIP- and 114 xFIP-, but honestly, those latter two marks aren’t terrible considering he’s just going out there and throwing to his heart’s content every few days. The big issue for Gray this season has been walks, as he has the fourth-highest walk rate among the 72 starters with 60-plus innings this year, and is still in the top 15 even if you drop the requirement to 30-plus innings. The increase in walks is largely attributable to a changed pitch mix where Gray used to be mostly-fastball, but has leaned more and more on his slider and a new cutter he debuted this year, while also still mixing in a lot of curves. The breaking pitches don’t finish in the zone much, and batters don’t chase them, hence: walks.

Beyond the walks, one of Gray’s longer-term developmental problems is that none of his pitches really do anything useful. His four-seamer is more about horizontal movement, and that doesn’t really help it miss bats or avoid hard contact. His cutter and slider are close to interchangeable with only 3 mph of velo separation, and don’t have the horizontal movement to play off his fastball. The curveball is hard and straight down. At this point, ditching the four-seamer may actually be beneficial, but you can see why the Nationals don’t want one of their prized prospect acquisitions to become a junkballer at 25.

Gray made his season debut against the Braves and got stomped, allowing three homers with a 4/2 K/BB ratio in five innings. Ronald Acuña Jr. and Matt Olson went back-to-back off him to start the game, and Marcell Ozuna added a solo shot later as the Braves easily won, 7-1. Gray had pitched much better against the Braves in his prior four starts across 2021-2022, but his career line against them is now pretty funny: 6.13 FIP and 4.33 xFIP, compared to a career 5.64 FIP and 4.78 xFIP.

Game Info

Atlanta Braves vs. Washington Nationals

Friday, June 9, 2023

7:20 pm EDT

Truist Park, Atlanta, GA

TV: Bankruptcy Sports Southeast

Radio: 680 AM/93.7 FM The Fan, La Mejor 1600/1480/1130 AM

XM Radio: Ch. 177

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