Braves notes: AJ Smith-Shawver’s offseason focus; few regulars to play Saturday

Braves open Grapefruit League play Saturday against Tampa Bay
Atlanta Braves pitcher AJ Smith-Shawver poses for a photograph during the team's photo day at CoolToday Park, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024, in North Port, Florida. (Hyosub Shin /



Atlanta Braves pitcher AJ Smith-Shawver poses for a photograph during the team's photo day at CoolToday Park, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024, in North Port, Florida. (Hyosub Shin /

NORTH PORT, Fla. — On Field 2 at the Braves’ CoolToday Park complex, AJ Smith-Shawver took the mound. As Charlie Morton pitched in the main stadium, Smith-Shawver threw without any fans watching. The only spectators were Braves staffers and officials and the other players scheduled to be there.

“It’s definitely a little bit different whenever no one’s out there,” Smith-Shawver said. “But it’s the same game at the end of the day. Still get to work on stuff.”

And in Friday’s live batting practice session, Smith-Shawver continued to hone work that began in the offseason. He estimated he threw around 20 pitches, which was his target. Chadwick Tromp caught them, and Michael Harris II was the lone big leaguer who faced Smith-Shawver.

Toward the end, Smith-Shawver landed a nasty curveball that produced a swinging strike. This was a small moment, but it was encouraging for a kid who worked so hard on his off-speed stuff over the offseason.

“I definitely just emphasized location with pitches,” Smith-Shawver said. “Curveball is an emphasis this year. Kind of everything was – just trying to get it more in the zone with off-speed pitches was a big emphasis for me this year.”

How did he go about working on location?

“More for location of pitches, I was working on how I’m moving,” Smith-Shawver said. “More consistent delivery equals more consistent pitches. My delivery was the main focus. And then, obviously, as you’re moving, you’re just trying to move better, and kind of just honing it in.”

Smith-Shawver, the Braves’ top prospect, debuted at 20 years old last season. He appeared in six games – five of them starts – and posted a 4.26 ERA.

According to Baseball Savant, 54% of his pitches were four-seam fastballs. His slider and curveball accounted for 23.3% and 12.1% of his pitches, respectively. He threw his change-up 10.6% of the time.

The hope would be that Smith-Shawver can produce more whiffs and strikeouts. He’s only 21 years old, so he’ll do a lot of developing over the next several years.

For now, it’s about taking the next step.

That progress already is apparent.

“You see a lot of improvement,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I think understanding what he’s trying to do, himself, delivery, the whole thing. What you’re just seeing is the byproduct of a young kid that, you know, he had a taste last year at 20 years old, and now he’s had a winter to process things. It’ll end up doing him well, what he experienced last year. He’s looked really good this spring.”

Asked what he learned in 2023, Smith-Shawver said: “I learned a ton last year. Kind of just to keep a level head throughout the outing. Don’t get too high, too low at any point. You just watch guys and you take bits and pieces of what they do, and you just add it to your repertoire, or whatever you’re doing, your warmup. Just everything. For me, my main takeaway from last year is just consistency and then just don’t let the game get too fast.”

On Friday, Smith-Shawver enjoyed competing again – even if the environment was subdued compared with a game.

“Obviously the intensity is not all there whenever you’re on a back field and are throwing,” he said. “But definitely, same approach for me, same game.”

A few Braves regulars to play in Grapefruit League opener

Spencer Strider will start Saturday’s Grapefruit League opener in Port Charlotte versus the Rays, Snitker said. He won’t be the only big leaguer that makes the short trip from North Port.

The Braves are also sending Harris, Jarred Kelenic and Marcell Ozuna. Harris and Kelenic will play center field and left field, respectively, you would think – as those are the positions they’ll have come opening day.

As for Ozuna?

He’ll play first base!

Snitker is ready for the (spring) games to begin.

“I always worry about coming down here, we work out four days (as a full team) and play a game,” Snitker said. “But (the guys) all came in early. Where you see them, it’s like they’re ready to start playing. They’re in good shape. We ran the bases. They’ve had really good work in the infield and outfield, and pitchers. Now it’s just time to build them back up.”

Joe Jiménez looks good in live BP

In live batting practice in the main stadium, Joe Jiménez had a couple of terrific moments when facing Ronald Acuña Jr.

On one pitch, Acuña swung through what appeared to be a slider. On the next, the right-handed reliever again had the reigning National League MVP off-balance, as Acuña looked to bounce one foul. And on the pitch after that, Acuña whiffed on another slider to end the at-bat.

Jiménez should again be a weapon out of the bullpen. It’s no coincidence that he has continued to improve as he gets further and further away from back surgery.

“He’s another one that I admire, that he hung with himself and kept doing the work, and was really, really good at the end of the year,” Snitker said of Jiménez’s 2023 season.

Last season, Jiménez allowed 10 runs – nine earned – over his first 18-1/3 innings. The rest of the way, he pitched to a 2.37 ERA over 38 innings.

On Field 2, Dylan Lee also threw live batting practice. In the main stadium, Morton and Raisel Iglesias preceded Jiménez.