'Holy cow, he's growing up': Smith-Shawver dazzles again

Braves' top prospect K's 5 in 2 2/3 innings, 4 with a changeup he's gaining a feel for

March 4th, 2024

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- entered last season looking to earn a promotion to the Double-A level. The heralded prospect catapulted himself to the Majors by the end of May.

Smith-Shawver might not begin the upcoming season as part of Atlanta’s rotation. But as he completed a scoreless effort against the Twins on Monday afternoon, he strengthened the belief he is on the cusp of realizing sustained success at the Major League level.

“What I’ve seen this spring has been really, really good,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “Really good. He’s just continuing to mature, and he’s going to continue to get better.”

Smith-Shawver showed how far he has come and how great he could become while recording five strikeouts over 2 2/3 scoreless innings in the Braves' 4-3 loss to the Twins. The 21-year-old hurler lit up the radar gun with a fastball that touched 98.3 mph. He also showed the potential of both his curve and slider. But his newest weapon, the changeup, created the most encouragement.

“Everything is trending in the right direction, that’s for sure,” Snitker said.

Four of Smith-Shawver’s five strikeouts concluded with the changeup. The Twins whiffed on four of their nine swings against the pitch. Not bad, considering the Braves' young hurler used the pitch just 10 percent of the time while in the Majors last year.

“It’s just about getting a feel for it, and the more you throw it, the more you get a feel for it,” Smith-Shawver said. “It’s been working out pretty well. I just want to keep it that way.”

Smith-Shawver again ranked at the top of the Braves' Top 30 Prospects list when the latest edition was released Monday. He also ranked No. 69 among all MLB prospects.

“He still has things to work on and clean up,” Snitker said. “But holy cow, he’s growing up. All he needs now is experience.”

Smith-Shawver’s raw physical skills create the belief he has a chance to establish himself among the game’s elite pitchers. But he’s still learning the art of pitching. He didn’t pitch during his first three high school baseball seasons because he was dealing with a growth plate issue in his right shoulder. But when he returned to the mound for a summer league team in 2020, he was immediately throwing 92-94 mph.

Less than three years later, Smith-Shawver was pitching for one of MLB’s best teams. He posted a 4.26 ERA over six starts (five appearances) for Atlanta last year. Not bad, considering he had totaled just 110 professional innings before making his MLB debut. He remembers making just nine starts during his senior year of high school.

But although this pitching thing is still somewhat new, Smith-Shawver had no trouble making some proven veterans look bad Monday. Carlos Correa swung through a changeup to end the first inning, and Carlos Santana whiffed on a two-strike, 96.7 mph heater in the third.

“He’s maturing,” Snitker said. “He probably wasn’t ready for what we put him through last year. But in retrospect, we’re going to look back on it, and it’s going to have been great for him to have experienced what he did. How he handled it was the biggest thing I was so impressed with. His confidence and mound presence was really good. This leads me to believe this kid’s ceiling is so high.”

Growing up as one of Bobby Witt Jr.’s best friends, Smith-Shawver was introduced to competing with and against elite talent at a young age. The Royals' shortstop is 2 years older. As he was beginning his professional career, Smith-Shawver seemed destined to play quarterback at Texas Tech. This plan changed once he started pitching and drawing attention from teams like the Braves.

Less than three years since graduating from high school, Smith-Shawver finds himself as a key asset for a World Series contender. He might not start the season in Atlanta’s rotation. But he will certainly be needed as the Braves manage the workloads of two of their projected starters -- Chris Sale and Reynaldo López.

“I definitely feel like I’m in a better spot this year, in terms of mental space,” Smith-Shawver said. “I feel like whenever they tell me to throw, wherever that is, I’m going to be ready. My thing is to just keep getting better, wherever that is.”