Smith-Shawver's goal for '24: 'Keep getting better'

March 11th, 2024

TAMPA -- For a prospect, it might be hard to imagine a better year than had in 2023, which he began with High-A Rome and finished in the National League Division Series as a 20-year-old. But this spring, Smith-Shawver said his main goal is to “keep getting better” -- and that might be bad news for the rest of the National League.

“That’s the main thing for me,” Smith-Shawver said. “If I’m consistently getting better, I’m moving in the right direction.”

In that sense, it’s been a wildly successful spring already for Smith-Shawver, who has spent camp showing why he’s the Braves’ top prospect. The latest example came Sunday, when the 21-year-old righty held his own against a Yankees lineup full of All-Stars and regulars in Atlanta’s 9-8 loss at George M. Steinbrenner Field.

Making his third Grapefruit League start, Smith-Shawver struck out three in three-plus innings, and though he was ultimately charged with four earned runs, that line belies the lack of hard contact he allowed and the strides he continues to make in a spring where development remains the priority. Smith-Shawver was optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett on Monday, but he has a good shot to be a factor in Atlanta later this season.

“Our coaches are on the same page here,” Smith-Shawver said. “I’m not trying to let people score, but thinking about competing and making pitches more than results. You want to make the team and be on the roster, but it's still early and I need to develop and get better.”

To that end, working further to incorporate a changeup as a third offspeed pitch continues to be a focus, particularly against left-handed hitters. Seventeen percent of the pitches Smith-Shawver threw on Sunday were changeups, 5% more than his output from six big league appearances last season. Another focus: refining command and limiting walks; he’s issued just three in three Grapefruit League starts.

In between, he’s shown flashes of the dominant arm many believe he can soon be. Smith-Shawver’s fastball averaged 96.1 mph on Sunday and touched 97.7 mph. He struck out Aaron Judge on three pitches in the first and DJ LeMahieu on a 97.5 mph fastball in the second. One batter later, he used a changeup to win a two-out battle with Juan Soto to strand two runners and end the inning.

“The changeup has been really important for me this spring,” Smith-Shawver said. “I’m getting more comfortable with that each outing. I feel like the game is slowing down for me a little bit in those [big] situations.”

All told, he’s racked up an 11-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 7 2/3 innings this spring, though he’s also been charged with seven earned runs.

“It was exciting to get him over here because he’s been throwing the ball really well,” manager Brian Snitker said. “He’s cleaned up his delivery. His stuff has been good all spring. He’s matured. He’s getting better with innings. The more we get him out there, the better he’s going to get, because the kid’s ceiling is really, really good. All he needs is experience and innings.”

The game’s No. 69 overall prospect per MLB Pipeline, Smith-Shawver only fell to the seventh round in the 2021 Draft because teams thought he’d attend Texas Tech, where he had a chance to play baseball and football. The Braves lured him away from that opportunity with an above-slot bonus, then watched him blossom two years later as he pitched his way all the way from High-A Rome to the big leagues and landed on Atlanta’s NLDS roster.

Despite his athleticism and dynamic stuff, Smith-Shawver still isn’t a finished product. But at 21 years of age, and in this organization, he doesn’t have to be.

The Braves have one of the most accomplished rotations in the sport, with Max Fried, Spencer Strider, Charlie Morton and Chris Sale locked into the top four spots. Reynaldo López and Bryce Elder are battling for the fifth, with Huascar Ynoa, No. 2 prospect Hurston Waldrep and Smith-Shawver there for depth when the need arises, which it certainly will. The Braves used 13 different starters in 2023 (excluding openers), and López and Sale both approach Opening Day with workload concerns.

The Braves know they’ll need Smith-Shawver this year.

“We’ll use him,” Snitker said. “It’s nice to have guys like that available to be able to do it.”

Asked how different a pitcher he is this spring compared to a year ago, Smith-Shawver said, “pretty different.”

“I definitely feel like I’ve made good strides,” he said. “I definitely feel like I’m in a lot better of a spot, and definitely a more complete pitcher than I was leaving camp last year."