AJ Smith-Shawver Is Growing

Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

AJ Smith-Shawver started on Monday, and it went rather well: 10 batters faced, 48 pitches, 32 strikes, 2 2/3 innings pitched, five strikeouts, one hit, one walk, no runs allowed. The Braves lost, but the damage came after Smith-Shawver left the game, and at any rate, spring training results have less of an impact on regular season success than what sign the GM was born under. Justin Toscano, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s beat writer, tweeted after the start that Smith-Shawver was “in a better place, physically and mentally, for whatever comes this season. You can see the improvement.”

That’s exciting news. The 21-year-old poked his head into the majors for the first time in mid-2023; he threw 25 1/3 regular-season innings with the big club, plus 2 2/3 more of mopup work in the NLDS. Still rookie-eligible, he made our Top 100 list as the top-rated prospect in Atlanta’s system.

But Plan A for the Braves doesn’t necessarily involve Smith-Shawver. Atlanta starts its rotation with Spencer Strider, one of the best pitchers in baseball. After that: Max Fried, Charlie Morton, Chris Sale, and Reynaldo López. Plus, they have quite a bit of prospect and Quad-A depth: Huascar Ynoa, Bryce Elder, Dylan Dodd. Ian Anderson (remember him?) is due back from Tommy John sometime later this year, and 2023 first-round pick Hurston Waldrep, with his unholy splitter, is being fast-tracked to the majors.

But the Braves will probably need Smith-Shawver eventually. Morton is a million years old. Fried will be a free agent after this season. The last time Sale qualified for the ERA title, Grey’s Anatomy was still good (yes, that show is still on). And four months ago, everyone thought López was a reliever. Atlanta’s Plan A might not involve Smith-Shawver, but Plan B does.

The second-most interesting thing about Smith-Shawver is his athleticism, which leads to an easy, loose arm action, which leads to the third-most interesting thing about him: A mid-90s fastball that flashes exciting arm-side movement.

Against this, Smith-Shawver throws a slider, changeup, and a mid-70s lollipop curveball. Sometimes the hook is quite hittable; other times, it’s as much of a paralyzing surprise as if Smith-Shawver walked up to the batter’s box and poured an ice cold bottle of Perrier down the front of his opponent’s pants.

The most interesting thing about Smith-Shawver is that despite having major league playoff experience, he is greener than the aforementioned bottle of seltzer. A two-sport star in high school, he was committed to Texas Tech until the Braves spent a seventh-round draft pick on him in 2021, thus preventing the poor young man from being marooned in Lubbock for three years. His first professional season consisted of four starts and 8 1/3 innings in rookie ball, which included two home runs, 16 strikeouts, and 10 walks out of 38 batters faced. His teammates might as well have gone for coffee when he was on the mound.

The next season, he struck out 103 but walked 39 in 17 Carolina League starts, finishing with an ERA of 5.11 in 68 2/3 innings — which isn’t eye-popping in a vacuum, but for a 19-year-old seventh-round pick in full-season ball, in his first full year as a pro, isn’t bad at all.

I’ll quote here from his Top 100 capsule: “Smith-Shawver made the bigs less than two years after being drafted as a two-sport high school athlete. He did so while undergoing meaningful mechanical and repertoire tweaks.”

That’s astounding, and if anything that summary undersells the issue. Smith-Shawver began the 2023 season in High-A Rome, one level up from where he’d finished the season previous. Fair enough. He made three starts, threw 14 total innings, and didn’t allow a run. Awesome. Let’s promote him. Two starts, seven innings at Double-A Mississippi. Sick. Let’s promote him again. Two starts at Triple-A Gwinnett: 12 innings, four earned runs. Bummer. Slow him down? No, let’s promote him again.

Which is how Smith-Shawver came to make his major league debut on June 4, at age 20, having thrown 33 innings above Low-A in his life. After one multi-inning relief appearance, the Braves handed him a start. He went 5 1/3 innings and didn’t allow a run. Impressive, not only because of his age and inexperience but because that was only the third time in his entire professional career that he’d pitched into the sixth inning.

Smith-Shawver held his own in the majors (OK, his first two starts were against Washington and Colorado, which is only technically the majors) before returning to Gwinnett for the bulk of the remaining regular season calendar.

Like, there’s raw, and then there’s getting to the majors after 23 months of playing baseball full-time. Smith-Shawver is six months younger than Paul Skenes, the first pick in last year’s draft. He’s younger than Travis Bazzana and JJ Wetherholt, who are candidates to go 1-1 in this year’s draft. Smith-Shawver has 164 1/3 professional innings pitched right now. Morton had 39 2/3 professional innings pitched when Smith-Shawver was born.

So what is there to refine? Well, despite it being the very start of spring training, Smith-Shawver is throwing harder. Last season, his fastball averaged 94.5 mph and his slider averaged 84.9. In his start against the Phillies last Wednesday, his fastball averaged 97 mph and topped out at 99.1. His slider averaged 87.6. On Monday against Minnesota, Smith-Shawver brought more heat: 96.4 mph on his fastball, 88.2 on his slider.

The other thing to look at is Smith-Shawver’s release point. It’s drifting down. In 2023, it was a little messy:

Here’s Smith-Shawver’s release point from the start against Philadelphia last week:

You can see it’s fairly neat horizontally, but a bit up and down (so to speak) vertically. But it’s also at the lower and outside edge of the 2023 cluster. Moreover, Smith-Shawver got an extra two to three extra inches of extension in his first spring training start than he did on average in 2023.

Against the Twins, that release point dropped again:

And more than that, his command and results improved. Against the Phillies, Smith-Shawver threw just 21 of 37 pitches for strikes and allowed four hits, including two home runs. Against the Twins, he allowed only the one hit and one walk.

Now, let’s not crap our pants over one pretty good spring training start. Particularly because Smith-Shawver did allow some hard contact; in addition to the single he surrendered, the young right-hander allowed three other line drives, two of them coming off the bat at 90 miles an hour or more. This gave him the amusing distinction of having no groundball-to-fly ball ratio on the day, despite surrendering four balls in play.

But a smoother, harder-throwing, more repeatable Smith-Shawver seems to be on the horizon. And given how quickly he’s developed to this point, the horizon could be quite close. The Braves don’t need him to be a regular contributor in the rotation right now, but they could definitely use him if he’s capable.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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2 months ago

Being young and good as a pitcher is incredibly hard in todays games. Since 2000, only 4 pitchers have accumulated 4+fWAR in a season aged 21 or younger (Bumgarder, Soroka, Fernandez and Kerhsaw) and only one since 2014(soroka in 2019). In that same time frame 12 position players have produced 4+ fWAR seasons with 3 players doing it twice by age 21(Acuna, Trout, and Harper(Soto probably does it too if not for 2020))

Back to AJSS, it would be incredibly rare for him to put up a 4+ fWAR season(especially considering innings wont be there with the Braves depth) but just experiencing the majors and holding your own is incredible in its own right.

2 months ago
Reply to  CousinNicky

The way teams insist on building guys up innings-wise that are going to be starters and of course service time manipulation really make it difficult, if you just do the math and start counting the years.

The amazing thing for AJSS is that far from being grown in a lab, he was almost trying not to be a pitcher as an amateur, but is still on the precipice of being a big league regular at such a young age.