Braves call up top pitching prospect AJ Smith-Shawver, who will begin in bullpen

Braves prospect AJ Smith-Shawver pitches for the Gwinnett Stripers against the Memphis Redbirds on May 19, 2023. (Photo courtesy of the Memphis Redbirds)

Credit: Photo courtesy of the Memphis Redbirds

Credit: Photo courtesy of the Memphis Redbirds

Braves prospect AJ Smith-Shawver pitches for the Gwinnett Stripers against the Memphis Redbirds on May 19, 2023. (Photo courtesy of the Memphis Redbirds)

OAKLAND, Calif. – After the Braves called up AJ Smith-Shawver – completing his stunningly speedy rise to the majors – Michael Soroka looked at the righty’s numbers.

“This kid’s thrown 100 innings,” Soroka remarked.

Then, Bryce Elder jokingly added: “Yeah, he’s thrown 120 lifetime innings.”

Here’s why Smith-Shawver’s climb is insanely rare: He is only 20 years old. He didn’t start pitching full-time until the summer of 2020, heading into his senior year of high school. The Braves selected him in the seventh round in the 2021 MLB draft less than two calendar years ago.

Now, he will make his MLB debut.

“I don’t think you can,” Soroka, who briefly played with Smith-Shawver at Triple-A Gwinnett, said when asked to put into perspective Smith-Shawver’s ridiculously quick journey.

“Nothing surprises me anymore, how quick these guys advance up the ladder and do well and all that,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker, who spent his baseball life in player development before the organization promoted him to manage its big-league team.

Before the Braves brought him up, Smith-Shawver had pitched 110 innings in the minor leagues. Smith-Shawver began this year at High-A Rome, where he made three starts. Then he made two at Double-A Mississippi and two more for Triple-A Gwinnett.

Over 33 innings in the minors this season, Smith-Shawver allowed only four earned runs. He didn’t surrender a run over his first five starts, then finally gave one up in his first Triple A start. He struck out 45 batters and walked 12 to start this year.

The Braves had seen enough.

Plus, they had an opening: Lucas Luetge had not performed well, so they designated him for assignment on Tuesday.

When reporters were in the clubhouse on Tuesday afternoon, Smith-Shawver was still on his way to Oakland. He arrived as soon as he could, and went out to the field during the second inning. He didn’t pitch in the game, but he made it. He realized a dream. Making the majors might’ve pushed the limits on what he believed could happen this year.

“Obviously, best-case scenario, I was thinking (it),” he said. “But I don’t think in my best-case scenario I could’ve planned it out to be like this. I think it’s really worked out pretty well for me this year. It’s great to see that they’re just gonna give young guys like me opportunities, and I’m just grateful for the opportunity.”

Smith-Shawver, one of Atlanta’s top prospects, will pitch out of the bullpen for the Braves. But the organization still sees him as a starting pitcher. And if the Braves need a starter on a certain day, Smith-Shawver is the next man up.

The Braves feel there are benefits to breaking a pitcher in through the bullpen. In fact, they’d love to introduce every pitching prospect to the majors this way, but the opportunity doesn’t always present itself.

Pitching out of the bullpen, Smith-Shawver will be able to receive small doses of big-league time. He’ll pitch for an inning or two at a time, and it’ll be a somewhat controlled setting. If he has a rough outing, Snitker can pull him. Smith-Shawver won’t need to worry about pitching deep into a game or “wearing it” – continuing to pitch if he’s getting shelled – to protect the bullpen.

If you’re looking for an example of how Smith-Shawver might be used, think of Spencer Strider before he entered the rotation last season. And by the way, Strider had only 94 minor-league innings to his name when the Braves called him up. (Max Fried also pitched out of the bullpen some when he came up to the majors.)

“In a way, he’s really only been pitching for a couple years full-time, since he’s so damn good at everything else he does,” Strider said of Smith-Shawver.

Smith-Shawver was a 3-star quarterback recruit at Colleyville Heritage (Texas) High School. He planned on going to Texas Tech to play football and baseball. Before becoming a full-time pitcher, he mainly played third base. “Nothing too crazy,” he said. “Just kind of going out there having fun with my buddies.”

In 2020, he began focusing on pitching.

Three years later, he will begin his major-league career by pitching out of the bullpen for Atlanta.

“I don’t know,” Smith-Shawver said when asked how he did it. “It’s kind of surreal. The Braves have just a lot of people that helped me develop and really kind of guided me. I didn’t really know exactly what I was doing when I first got into it, and I think just the guys around this organization really gave me the right tools to compete and gave me the opportunity. It just kind of worked out.”

And the bullpen role should ease his transition to this level.

“If nothing else, it just takes kind of everything away except just competing,” Strider said. “That’s your only focus. It’s the only thing you can control. You don’t have to worry about how well you structure your routine or that kind of stuff, because it’s kind of out of your hands. In that way, he’s going to find out a lot about his stuff and just himself without having to obsess over that.”

Plus, Smith-Shawver’s debut won’t come with as much pressure. He can continue working on things without the duty of carrying his weight in the starting rotation.

“It’s kind of just, go out and lay it all on the line,” Strider said. “That’s the kind of pitcher he is, too. That’s what’s nice. He’s going right at guys. That’s all you have to do in the ‘pen.”

Added Snitker: “More than likely, I wouldn’t be real surprised if he (makes) a start this year at some point in time, before it’s all said and done. That being said, if he does that and he’s already had some experience taking the mound before, I think it’ll be an easier transition for him.”

Braves manager Brian Snitker believes bullpen work will be a good way to get AJ Smith-Shawver comfortable in the majors. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Credit: AP

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Credit: AP

Smith-Shawver has an elite arm. In his last start for Gwinnett, his four-seam fastball averaged 95 mph and touched 97 mph. He also throws a slider and a curveball.

This spring, Soroka saw Smith-Shawver throw a live batting practice session.

“It’s pretty real stuff right out of the gate,” Soroka said. “Looking forward to watching him do his thing up here because, yeah, it’s real. He’ll be great. Really happy for him.”

Strider has only seen the prospect throw once.

“He looked really good,” Strider said. “He looked really good.”

If things don’t go well up here for Smith-Shawver, the Braves can send him down. But they’ve always said they’ll bring up anyone who can help them win. In a small sample size, he pitched better than others in Gwinnett.

They feel they can use him.

“He’s going to learn more relieving here than he would starting in Triple A,” Strider said. “That’s a fact. So it’s good for him.”

If Smith-Shawver were pitching for another organization, there’s a good chance he wouldn’t be in the big leagues. Heck, he may not even be in Triple-A.

Many teams are still conservative with their prospects.

Not the Braves. Last year, they put Strider on the opening-day roster. Then they called up Michael Harris II. Eventually, they brought up Vaughn Grissom.

Now, they’ve rewarded Smith-Shawver.

“That’s a great precedent the organization has set, in my opinion,” Strider said. “If you’re in the organization, you’re an asset to the big-league team. And in that way, if you can convince somebody that I can contribute and if there’s a need, then you know what, they’ll keep pushing you until you prove you can’t do it. And in his case, every time they’ve said, ‘Hey, let’s see if you can keep doing it,’ he’s kept doing it, and here he is. That’s awesome. You want to be in a winning organization, no matter what level you’re at.”

Added Snitker: “He’s throwing really well. He’s already ran a bunch of levels this summer. But he’s gotten results and his stuff’s really good, reports are really good and all that. As we’ve seen, stuff and skills play up here.”

And then there’s this: The Braves had a need in the bullpen. Luetge departed with a 10.24 ERA over 9 2/3 innings. Other relievers have struggled.

It’s time to see what he’s got.

“When you watch the kid move, you watch him run, I mean, it’s pretty clear that he’s an athlete,” Soroka said. “And right now, I think he’s in a headspace where he’s just going out there and letting it rip, and that’s where he needs to be. We might as well get him up here. He’s going to learn a lot more up here, in the bullpen. It’s going to be awesome for him. I’m excited.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Smith-Shawver arrived in Norfolk, Virginia, where the Gwinnett Stripers are playing this week. He received a call from Ben Sestanovich, Atlanta’s assistant general manager of player development. After Sestanovich delivered the great news, Smith-Shawver called his parents.

Then he hopped on a cross-country flight.

“Now it’s just time to try to stay here and just execute pitches,” Smith-Shawver said.