'Wow, we’re here': Smith-Shawver shines in first MLB start

No. 4 prospect becomes youngest pitcher to make first start with Atlanta since 2011

June 10th, 2023

ATLANTA --  Jason Shawver and his wife, Laurie, had to eat the non-refundable plane tickets purchased just before their son made a quicker-than-expected rise from High-A Rome to Double-A Mississippi.

A month later, they confidently booked more flights, knowing their travel plans couldn’t be affected by another promotion. Their son, , has reached the Majors earlier than expected, and it looks like he might stick around for a while. 

“We all knew he was going to get here, man, but not this fast,” Shawver said after seeing his son make his first career start in the Braves’ 3-2 win over the Nationals on Friday night at Truist Park.

Just two years have passed since Smith-Shawver graduated from Colleyville (Texas) High School and just three years have elapsed since he started pitching on a regular basis. His Minor League career has consisted of just 28 starts and 110 innings. But the 20-year-old hurler showed nothing but poise while allowing just two unearned runs over 5 1/3 innings.  

His effort, combined with a two-run eighth, helped the Braves claim a sixth straight win.

“I don’t think the feeling I had out there was normal comparatively to anywhere I pitched in the Minors,” said Smith-Shawver, the Braves’ No. 4 prospect, per MLB Pipeline. “I think I started settling in during the second inning.”  

A couple soft singles and an errant throw from catcher Sean Murphy led to a first inning run. The Nationals’ only other run came after Orlando Arcia booted Lane Thomas’ leadoff grounder in the sixth. Thomas scored when Joey Meneses knocked a double off reliever Collin McHugh.

That accounted for the only damage incurred by Smith-Shawver, who came out of the bullpen to make his MLB debut with 2 1/3 scoreless innings in Sunday’s road win over the D-backs.

“He’s going to have to be more refined, be more consistent in the zone and hit with his secondary pitches better, as many other young guys do,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “He’s learning on the job here.”

Smith-Shawver pitched in front of a sold-out crowd of 40,297 and exited to a standing ovation. The environment was a little different than the one that surrounded him on April 16, when he pitched in front of 1,605 fans during his season debut for High-A Rome.

“I just tried to look at it like, 'It's just a cool night and I get to do this every day,'” Smith-Shawver said. “I tried to soak it all in, look around and say, ‘Wow, we’re here.'”  

Three starts for Rome were followed by two starts at the Double-A level and two more at the Triple-A level. He struck out 35.2 percent of the batters he faced during this six-week span and now finds himself in a big league rotation just three years after COVID-19 actually influenced his decision to begin pitching again. 

“It’s hard to believe,” Murphy said.

This was a celebratory night for a family who truly knows how fast this occurred. Just two years ago, Laurie Shawver was watching her son graduate from high school and pondering whether he’d play professional baseball or try to play quarterback at Texas Tech.  

“I’m so proud of him, I’m going to cry,” Laurie said approximately 30 minutes before Friday’s first pitch.

Jason Shawver has been in AJ’s life since he was an infant. The Braves' pitcher added his stepfather’s surname to Smith during his high school years. Having seen him throw a football 85 yards, Jason knew his son had a special arm. But when it looked like football might be the future and a growth plate created some right shoulder discomfort during the first couple high school years, a decision was made to stop pitching. 

But once a number of football camps were canceled because of COVID in 2020, Smith-Shawver decided to spend time with his friends on a travel baseball team. He was one of the best third base prospects in Texas. But he became a coveted pitching prospect when he stepped on a mound in Oklahoma and was immediately clocked at 93 mph.

“He was like, 'As soon as I pitch, they won’t let me hit,'” Jason Smith-Shawver said. “But then he understood he could pitch and play a lot of golf.” 

Three years later, the Shawvers are proud parents of a Major Leaguer, who now has a much wider range of golf options.  

“It’s awesome seeing their faces light up,” Smith-Shawver said. “It seems like they're almost enjoying it as much or even more than I am.”