With the draft now in the books, it is time to shift our attention back to the Braves’ minor leagues. There is no question about the fact that there is a lack of depth in the minors currently (although this draft class sure helps the cause), but one name that has caught the attention of a lot of evaluators is RHP AJ Smith-Shawver.
Drafted out of Colleyville Heritage High School in the seventh round by the Braves thanks to a healthy overslot bonus, AJ features a high octane fastball that sits in the mid to upper 90’s with tons of life at the top of the zone along with a hard slider that gets a lot of silly swings and misses. While he still has some work to do in terms of consistently commanding his impressive stuff, for a pitcher right out of the prep ranks...he has as much upside as any pitcher in the Braves’ farm system.
AJ was kind enough to take some time to chat quickly with me about his journey to pro ball and where he things he stands right now. Enjoy!
First off, let’s talk about how you got started in the game of baseball. When did you first start playing baseball and did you play any other sports growing up?
I played everything growing up. I started playing soccer at 3 or 4 and then football and baseball when I was 5 and 6 basketball when I was 8.
A lot of players (but not all) can point to a point in time or at least a period in time when they realized that maybe going pro in baseball could realistically happen. Was there a moment or period of time when you realized “Hey, I could make a living playing baseball” or was it more gradual for you?
Absolutely there was. My first outing as a pitcher was during my junior year summer. I was in a tournament in Oklahoma and my coach and I talked about me maybe getting an outing there and seeing what I could do, but at that point I wasn’t taking it seriously at all. However, I got the opportunity and hit 95mph which I had no clue I could even throw that hard. I was just out there messing around and then I got around 20 to 30 offers that same day from different D1 schools. At that point, I was like maybe I can make this baseball thing work out.
So you were drafted out of high school while being committed to Texas Tech. Texas Tech has a great baseball program and a great football program. I know the decision to go ahead and go pro is difficult even with life changing money right there in front of you not even accounting for football as an option. Were you prepared to go to campus after you graduated from Colleyville and going into the draft, how likely did you think that you would end up going to college instead?
I didn’t know what was going to happen so I was getting prepared to go to school. I think that Texas Tech would have given me a great opportunity, but I was definitely ready for both options and was just excited to see what would happen.
So obviously the Braves liked you a good bit as you were a significant overslot signing for them on Day Two. When did you realize that the Braves were really interested in drafting you and were there any other teams that you thought might draft you as well?
I had texted my area scout for the Braves one time before the draft, but didn’t think anything of it and then I didn’t hear anything from them until about 10 minutes before I got drafted and got the call. However, I did workouts with the Padres, Royals, Rangers, Mets, and Pirates and was talking to a few of the teams, but I was honestly surprised when the Braves called me.
That brings us to the draft itself. On Day Two, tell us a little bit about what you were doing that day and then about the moment you realized that you were going to be an Atlanta Brave.
The day of the draft, I was just hanging out with my family and one of my best friends. I didn’t really watch the draft after the 3rd round, but just had a good day spending time with my family.
So you get drafted and sign with the team and you make a handful of appearances in the Florida Complex League which I think to say were a mixed bag. Coming out of that initial pro debut, what was your biggest takeaway and what changes, if any, did you make that offseason?
Yeah the FCL gave me a chance to get really good development to end the year. My first time throwing a changeup and slider were in the first game I had in the FCL. The coaches were working with me everyday just cleaning some things up which we are still doing to this day, but I came in and had no idea what to expect. Really, I was just happy to be there and ready to get to work. I think it gave me a good idea of what I needed to work on during my first off season and set me up well to just get adjusted to all the changes.
It is time to talk pitching and I want to first ask about your fastball. It was certainly a good pitch for you in high school, but you are now throwing upper 90’s heat with real movement especially at the top of the zone. Did you make any changes to get that uptick in velocity or was it just adding some strength and being able to focus solely on baseball?
We didn’t have any crazy changes, I just cleaned some things and just got me moving better. The off season training put me in a good position with added weight and strength. I think that the baseball specific training was huge for me, because I was always a football first guy so it really helped me to really focus on baseball related things.
Now it’s time to talk about your slider. You have joined a large contingent of pitchers who have adopted at least a version of a power breaking ball as you throw it pretty hard. Are you happy with how that pitch has developed as a pro and what is your confidence level in it?
Yeah it is my go-to strikeout pitch. It plays well off my high induced vertical fastball and it’s really hard which makes it harder for hitters to make the decision on it when I put it under the zone.
One pitch type that does have a lot of importance to starters as a pro, especially when it comes to getting opposite handed hitters out, is a changeup. How would you rate your changeup currently and how much of your focus is on improving it this season?
The split changeup I throw now is something that I like to use to show hitters so they can’t guess what is coming. It helps me throw off hitters’ timing, but it isn’t a pitch that I’m going to throw a ton.
In your opinion, what has been your biggest adjustment that you have had to make since you have turned pro?
I think just learning how to pitch has been huge for me this year because obviously the hitters are a lot better and I haven’t pitched for very long. The biggest thing for me is consistency and learning how to go 6 innings on a day that I don’t feel great on the mound and just grind through innings. I believe that I have great stuff when it comes to my pitches that are going to beat hitters. Now it is just up to me to try to polish everything that I have and become more consistent.