PHOENIX – When AJ Smith-Shawver first tried to pick up a slider by himself, he had trouble throwing it hard. He tried to spin it like a sideways curveball.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I didn’t really know what I was doing, honestly.”
As he says this, Smith-Shawver is still only 20 years old. The Braves drafted the righty less than two calendar years ago. He has focused on pitching for only three years.
So imagine how raw he might have been back then.
He had an elite arm, but he hadn’t pitched much. He needed the seasoning. This is where Atlanta’s player development department came into the picture.
Soon after the Braves drafted him in 2021, Smith-Shawver reported to the organization’s North Port facility. He worked with everyone on his slider. He had a fastball that touched 95 mph in high school. But he needed to develop his secondary pitches.
Before this, Smith-Shawver estimated he could only throw a slider 83 mph when he tried to learn it himself. “But I was kind of throwing a curveball,” he said. “It wasn’t very good.” He needed help.
In Florida, Smith-Shawver toyed with a bunch of slider grips. He tried to throw the pitch as hard as possible. And after the Braves selected him in the draft, Smith-Shawver threw 8-1/3 innings in the Florida Complex League (rookie ball).
“I probably walked the house a few times,” he said. “About every time I was out there.”
He walked 10 batters. He allowed eight runs.
But this is why context was important.
During that time, Smith-Shawver was working on his slider. He was experimenting with adjustments. Progress doesn’t always show up in a box score.
Slowly and surely, he became more confident with the curveball. He began to locate it consistently. He had a better feel for it.
And going into Low-A Augusta, where he spent the entire 2022 season, the Braves wanted him to work on his slider – so much so that they told him to throw his curveball (for which he had a better feel) less in favor of becoming more comfortable with the slider. He was primarily a fastball-slider guy. It took him an entire year of throwing the slider to feel like he was in a good place with it.
“Coming into this season, I thought I had a lot better plan with it and a lot better feel just right off the jump,” Smith-Shawver said. “I think I can just attack the zone with it and get ahead, and also put away guys with it.”
Smith-Shawver throws a four-seam fastball, curveball and slider. In his last start with Triple-A Gwinnett before Atlanta called him up, his fastball touched 97 mph and the slider hit 88 mph. In two starts with Gwinnett, he primarily hurled the fastball and slider.
He’s also working on a changeup.
“Obviously if, long-term, I want to maybe stay starting games, it’s nice to have a few pitches just to throw people off whenever you’re going through that lineup for the third time,” Smith-Shawver said. “You just want your stuff to be as good as it can possibly be, so just kind of working on stuff every day to see if I can just add another pitch to the arsenal. Just something to have in my back pocket to throw hitters off. So that’s just been something I’ve been kind of playing with these last few weeks and trying to really get a good feel for it before I throw it in a game.”
(A fun nugget: In high school, Smith-Shawver threw a knuckleball. “Just messing around,” he said. “Just flip it in there every once in a while. Just giggling and stuff out there on the mound.”)
Smith-Shawver’s arm popped out to Braves scouts, who foresaw a prosperous future for him. To make that happen, the player development side of the organization needed to do its job. Throughout his journey in professional baseball, Smith-Shawver has thrown countless bullpens in front of many coaches, including Kevin McAvoy and Wes McGuire. Tons of others aided his development.
Smith-Shawver began pitching full-time three years ago, and is already in the majors.
It leads you to think about how high his ceiling could be as he gains more experience.
“Obviously, I think that you can get better every day,” Smith-Shawver said. “Maybe it’s not a big jump. Sounds corny, but just, like, a little 1%. It’s not something that you’re really thinking about day in, day out, but you’re always just trying to work on your stuff and just make it better every day.
“I think it’s been cool with all the player development that we have and all the tools and resources. I think it’s definitely made this process a lot easier for me than it would have been if I was just trying to do it on my own or maybe with another organization.”
Braves line up top starters for Mets series
The Braves are skipping Jared Shuster in the starting rotation as they look to best align themselves for a series win over the Mets.
Bryce Elder will start on Tuesday. Instead of Shuster, Charlie Morton will pitch on Wednesday, and will be on regular rest because of Monday’s off day.
That off day will also allow the Braves to bring back Spencer Strider on regular rest for Thursday’s series finale.
Shuster is healthy. The other three starters are better options versus New York.
The Mets will start, in order, Carlos Carrasco, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander.