Tweaked changeup boosts No. 1 prospect’s equity

March 15th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Mark Bowman’s Braves Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

NORTH PORT, Fla. -- Spencer Strider has been as dominant as any pitcher I’ve ever covered during Spring Training. Chris Sale has shown how nasty he can still be when healthy. And Ronald Acuña Jr. has returned to action two weeks ahead of Opening Day.

But ’s improvement seems to be the most encouraging development from Braves camp this year. The young pitcher showed great potential as he was prematurely tested at the Major League level last year. He spent the past few weeks building on the belief that he could be a great asset for the Braves this year.

“He’s been awesome,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “You can see the growth and the improvement. He’s just going to get better the more he does it. He’s got a great makeup and the realization of everything he needs to work on. It’s really, really impressive how he came into camp.”

Smith-Shawver was just 20 years old when he began last season with High-A Rome, but he found himself in the Majors by the end of May. It was remarkable that he reached the big leagues having thrown less than 200 innings at the Minor League level. It was even more remarkable when you consider he didn’t even start pitching on a regular basis until 2020, when he was preparing to begin his senior year in high school.

“He’s terrific,” Strider said. “I’ve been really impressed with him, from him getting called up and feeling like he’s the little guy. Now, I struggle to remember he’s like four years younger than me. His commitment to get better and to be the best version of himself is really strong. That’s really fun for me. He likes to talk and he likes to learn. We have a lot of good conversations.”

Like Strider’s newly developed curveball might make him an NL Cy Young Award favorite this year, Smith-Shawver’s significantly improved changeup could soon help him entrench himself within Atlanta’s rotation. He has found great success with the pitch throughout Spring Training, and the pitch’s value was highlighted when he tallied a pair of strikeouts against Aaron Judge on Sunday.

“I know he’s not afraid of anybody,” Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud said.

Smith-Shawver was optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett earlier this week. But he is scheduled to be back on the mound when the Braves play the Tigers on Friday afternoon. This might have had to do with not wanting to make any of the veteran pitchers make the long trek to Lakeland. But at the same time, Smith-Shawver remains at the forefront of the team’s decision makers.

If the Braves begin the season with both Sale and Reynaldo López, they will have to be cautious of the workloads of two starters. Neither pitcher has thrown a full season as a starter since 2019.

So, Smith-Shawver will definitely be needed in Atlanta at some point this year. When he arrives, he’ll be carrying an enhanced sense of confidence and a changeup that opponents rarely had to deal with last year.

“The very first time he threw that pitch last year was in the big leagues and immediately, it was like, ‘Wow, that is going to be a big pitch for him,’” Braves pitching coach Rick Kranitz said. “He just needs to continue to progress with it. It’s another pitch that he can add to the arsenal and throw in any count. When a guy throws that hard and you have that kind of changeup, you can take those two pitches and navigate your way through a game.”

Smith-Shawver enters this season as the Braves’ No. 1 prospect and baseball’s No. 69 prospect, per MLB Pipeline. He may soon graduate from prospect status, but his days of being ranked among the game’s best might not be over.