Unfazed Smith-Shawver ready to cap stunning rise in postseason

October 11th, 2023

PHILADELPHIA -- Those who watched establish himself as an elite quarterback and late-blooming pitching prospect at Texas’ Colleyville Heritage High School have a great appreciation for the confidence he will bring to the mound if the Braves have him serve as a reliever in Game 3 of the National League Division Series on Wednesday at Citizens Bank Park.

“He carries a sense of confidence, some could absolutely call it arrogance,” former Colleyville Heritage baseball coach Alan McDougal said. “It’s a sense of confidence that kind of lets him jump into any scene. What separates him from most is I don’t believe he is afraid to fail.”

Smith-Shawver is still a little more than a month from his 21st birthday and he didn’t even begin pitching on a regular basis until three years ago, the summer before his senior year of high school. But there’s something special about this top prospect, who began this year in High-A and reached the Majors by late May.

“He's probably one of the most athletic persons I've been around,” said Braves reliever A.J. Minter, who worked out with Smith-Shawver during the offseason.

But considering he has totaled just 25 1/3 innings as a big leaguer, can he be successful while pitching in front of a raucous Philadelphia crowd in the all-important third game of this best-of-five series?

“He's been killing it the past month, and velocity is up,” Minter said. “Command is up. So he's going to be a horse on the mound.”

The Braves announced Wednesday morning that Bryce Elder will start Game 3, so if Smith-Shawver gets into the game, it will be out of the bullpen.

There weren't any obvious options, as the Braves continue to deal with the absence of Charlie Morton, who will miss the NLDS because of a right index finger sprain suffered on Sept. 22. Elder was an All-Star this year, but his command disappeared as he fatigued down the stretch.

Meanwhile, Smith-Shawver's only appearance for Atlanta over the regular season’s final two months came on Sept. 28, when he tossed 3 2/3 innings against the Cubs. He allowed one earned run against a playoff-contending team. His fastball averaged 96.5 mph, almost two full miles per hour more than it had in any of his other five big league appearances this year.

Smith-Shawver’s fastball continued to show great life as he silenced Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies, Austin Riley, Matt Olson and most of the Braves’ regulars in an intrasquad game last week. 

It’s not like this is the first time Smith-Shawver has come out of nowhere. He spent his early high school days developing into one of Texas’ top high school quarterbacks. He committed to play football at Texas Tech before the Braves took him in the seventh round of the 2021 MLB Draft.

“He’s the best-kept secret in Texas,” former Colleyville Heritage football coach Kirk Martin told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “He can play anywhere in the country, and I truly mean that. I’ve coached a lot of great quarterbacks, and somebody is going to get a special one if they just watch.”

Smith-Shawver was a bit of a surprise from a baseball perspective. He became a little-brother figure to Bobby Witt Jr. during their childhood days and teamed with the Royals' shortstop to win a state baseball championship in 2019.

Still just a sophomore, Smith-Shawver primarily served as a designated hitter on the varsity team that year. He tried to pitch a few times, but was throwing just 81-84 mph. A growth plate was causing some shoulder discomfort. So he decided to stop pitching until the following summer, when he opted to play travel ball because some football camps he wanted to attend were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“When he jumped into that COVID summer, it was to showcase himself as a third baseman and hitter,” McDougal said. “Then he pops up there on the mound and it was just different. It was like a freakin’ movie, because I think it surprised him.”

That same arm that had chucked footballs 75-plus yards was now generating 93-94 mph fastballs. The strength increased over the months that followed and Smith-Shawver nearly threw a perfect game during his second start of the high school season. Suddenly, he was drawing attention from scouts and positioning himself for the $997,500 signing bonus the Braves gave him.

Smith-Shawver’s incredible rise caused his parents to alter plans this year. Jason Shawver and his wife, Laurie, booked non-refundable plane tickets to see AJ pitch for High-A Rome (Ga.) during the early portion of the year. But he was promoted to Double-A Mississippi before they made the trip. Another quick promotion to Triple-A was followed with Smith-Shawver reaching the Majors on May 30. A relief appearance against the D-backs on June 4 set the Braves up for a dramatic comeback win.

It has happened fast for Smith-Shawver. But those who know him best are confident he’s ready to conquer this next challenge.

“It is a pretty amazing story,” McDougal said. “There's a reason it's rare. I'm hopeful that the rarity keeps rolling in and not only does he get a chance to throw, but he has a lot of success doing it. I know. I know he's going to take the mound knowing he’s going to be successful as hell. That's half the battle.”