The young guns showed out in spring training this season, and there was perhaps no player more impressive than Jared Shuster. While it seemed the Atlanta Braves had a good idea of how to build their starting rotation Shuster’s performance changed those plans and earned him a spot on the opening day roster. While Shuster’s spot hasn’t yet been confirmed as permanent, he seems like the favorite to win the fifth starter spot and stay in the rotation once Kyle Wright returns from injury.
Shuster was the Braves first round pick in the shortened 2020 draft, riding high from a strong performance in the Cape Cod League in the summer of 2019. In that time Shuster saw a huge jump in velocity and started sitting 92-94 with his fastball and topping out at 97 mph. The Braves were impressed by this, but his professional career didn’t get off to the hottest start. Shuster had injury problems which plagued him during that 2020 offseason and the start of 2021 where he was kept on a strict workload limit. Shuster’s velocity had fallen off significantly from his pre-draft numbers and in his early time in the minor leagues he was struggling to hit 90 mph. Still Shuster put up solid numbers in Rome with 61 strikeouts and 13 walks in 46 2⁄3 innings. Finally in his 14th start of the season he was allowed to go past the five inning and 75 pitch mark and he finished the season with three starts in Double-A Mississippi where he had a rough time.
Due to the limited innings and velocity Shuster showed in his previous season our expectations were a bit low for Shuster going in 2022, but he immediately got onto a roll and was the best pitcher in the system for most of the year. In just his second start of the season he blew away his previous career high in strikeouts with twelve of them over five scoreless innings. Shuster finished his time in Double-A with 17 starts in 2022 during which he had a 2.78 ERA, 3.12 FIP, and 30% strikeout rate. More importantly he reversed the most concerning trend of 2021 and allowed only eight home runs in 90 2⁄3 innings. These performances made his promotion to Triple-A a given, a move which was met with mostly poor results. The home run rate ticked back up against Shuster and with higher level hitters making more contact against him he pitched ten games with Gwinnett and had a 5.62 FIP with his strikeout rate dipping to 19.4%.
Coming into spring training Shuster was a fairly safe bet to head back to Triple-A with the idea that he could use another season of development before being ready for major league action. Four games in and suddenly the narrative had shifted, with the struggles of Ian Anderson helping to strengthen a case for Shuster to be on the opening day roster. After two scoreless innings in his first game Shuster hit the ground running in March with him striking out 16 batters and walking only two in 10 2⁄3 innings. Shuster was shakier in his final two outings and walked more than he struck out, but his overall performances were still good enough for him to get the final spot on the opening day roster.
Shuster’s game is built around getting to his secondary pitches, but the biggest encouragement this spring came from an extra tick on his fastball. His velocity had started to work its way back up in 2021 and he was sitting 91-92 by the end of the season, then this spring his velocity again moved in the right direction. Shuster averaged over 92 mph on his fastball and in one game touched 96.8 mph on a pitch which is velocity he had not shown since his pre-draft performances. Shuster’s fastball is still well below average and won’t be a pitch that consistently gets him outs, but it’s improved enough to not be a major liability and when his fastball is working it makes his secondary pitches more effective.
Shuster’s calling card as a prospect has been a plus changeup which despite his increase in fastball velocity hasn’t seen a similar jump. This increases the difference between his fastball and changeup velocity making it even more effective as a change of pace pitch. Most of Shuster’s outs come off of his changeup as it creates awkward swings from both left and right handed batters and is the pitch he commands the best. When batters do make contact the changeup has such a deep tumbling action that it’s more often than not hit into the ground which led to him producing high ground ball rates last season. His slider also has taken a small step forward, developing into a solid average offering that is able to give left handed batters a different look. I don’t see it as a pitch that is going to be a consistent money-maker, but he can use it as a complement to his other pitches as it has a different plane of movement.
Shuster’s command tends to be what makes or breaks him, as he is more of a control first strike-thrower than high command pitcher which gets him in trouble given his fastball. In the early parts of 2021 Shuster really placed his fastball well and it was able to get him called strikes to give him a better opportunity to utilize his changeup. In Gwinnett Shuster had a bit of trouble adjusting to that smaller strike zone and when he makes command mistakes his fastball is just not good enough to survive in the zone. He throws enough strikes to avoid walking himself into trouble and all of his pitches are geared towards being hit into the ground, but that hasn’t stopped batters from teeing off on him at times and putting up big innings on home runs. Shuster’s ultimate success will be determined by how well he locates his fastball. This spring it seemed he had made a leap forward in that regard, but if it starts to slip he could be a guy that can have a few nasty outings interspersed with the solid ones.
Shuster is a pitcher with a relatively high floor and he should be a solid #5 starter right now. His ceiling is limited as he just doesn’t throw hard or spin anything particularly well, but I still think that he can turn into a mid tier #4 starter. I’m not confident Shuster is ready for a long-term look at the major league level. In a handful of starts he has the pitch mix to be effective, but he needs a bit more refinement to his location to be able to get away with his fastball once hitters get more looks and data on him. Shuster could use another half season to full season at the Triple-A level to really pursue that last level of development before he makes a debut, but for now the Braves don’t have that option and he is going to be thrown into the fire. Shuster should mostly be fine and on most days will give the team a chance to win, but he will be prone to blow up outings when he isn’t locating his pitches well and that is just part of the process that the team and fans will have to bear through. With a pitcher like Shuster that lacks the dominating pitch mix to allow him to take over games it’s going to be about limiting mistakes when he gets into trouble. Shuster won’t walk his way into bad innings, produces high ground ball rates, and has a single pitch that he can go to any time he needs to get a key out. Those are the positives and the best case scenario is that he can continue to improve his command and avoid home runs as much as possible.