With 23 picks down and the Rays on the clock at no. 24, I thought I was certain who the Braves would take for their first pick of the 2020 MLB Draft. Instead, though, Tampa Bay selected high school righty Nick Bitsko… and I quickly turned my attention to guys like pitcher Clayton Beeter and catcher Dillon Dingler, surprisingly still available despite being projected by many to go ten picks before the Braves’ at no. 25.
However, I wound up 0-for-3 in my little guessing game. The Braves, obviously looking to go below-slot with their first pick (with a slot-bonus of roughly $2.7 million), drafted 21-year-old lefty Jared Shuster, a product of Wake Forest, where he has pitched the last three seasons. Shuster, ranked the 62nd overall player in the 2020 class (per FanGraphs’ THE BOARD), may have been a rather surprising choice, but there’s still a lot to like about the Braves’ decision on Wednesday night.
A native of Bedford, Mass., Shuster spent his prep days pitching at Tabor Academy in nearby Marion, Mass. before beginning his collegiate career for the Demon Deacons of Wake Forest in 2018. Despite a spot with a Power 5 program for three seasons (2018-20), and now his rise to become a first-round pick in the MLB Draft, Shuster’s career thus far has featured quite a number of ups and downs, especially in the beginning.
In 2018 — his freshman campaign — a 19-year-old Shuster pitched primarily out of the Wake Forest bullpen, making 12 relief appearances and six starts, totaling 34 innings. His numbers that season were far from that of a potential future draftee, as Shuster walked 5.6 batters per nine and posted a gaudy 7.41 ERA, including a 1.529 WHIP and an 0-3 record.
His performance would improve, though. In the summer of 2018, Shuster joined one of New England’s Collegiate summer league teams — the New Bedford Bay Sox — and put together an impressive run of pitching through 49 overall innings and nine starts, cutting his walk-rate roughly in half (3.3 BB/9) and punching out nearly three more batters per nine (11.4 K/9) compared to his first season with Wake Forest. With New Bedford, while facing some of the top college players in the country, Shuster posted a strong 2.76 ERA and seemed primed for a big sophomore campaign.
However, the struggles continued for Shuster while wearing a Wake Forest uniform, and during the 2019 season — now part of the Demon Deacons’ starting staff — he managed just a 6.49 ERA in 12 starts and three relief appearances (68 IP) as a 20-year-old. The walks once again piled up, though not nearly as much (4.9 BB/9), and Shuster showed real flashes of dominance despite his continued poor run-prevention. He concluded the 2019 season with 12.4 strikeouts per nine — the best K rate of his career at that point.
Once again, the summer featured more baseball for Shuster, though this time, he joined the Orleans Fire Birds — part of the 10-team Cape Cod League. Pitching for the Fire Birds, Shuster’s knack for mowing down batters in summer ball continued, and his final line at season’s end included a stingy 1.41 ERA and 4-0 record in 7 starts (32 IP). His issues with free passes?… no longer a problem, as Shuster walked just 1.4 batters per nine — a drastic improvement compared to just a season ago.
Even better, this time, Shuster’s incredible summer league performance carried over to the following NCAA season.
As a 20-year-old junior, Shuster pitched like one of the best in the country during the 2020 season, though the COVID-19 pandemic allowed him only four starts (26.1 IP). Regardless, Shuster made the most of his small sample of outings, finishing with ten or more strikeouts in all but one of his 2020 starts. He entered Wednesday’s draft having just completed a partial season in which he struck out 14.7 batters per nine and walked just 1.4, adding a healthy 3.76 ERA to boot. As you can see, Shutter’s first-round selection was a result of some extraordinary improvements on the mound, making him a compelling choice regardless of his meager draft stock coming in.
Shuster’s scouting report
A player doesn’t post a strikeout-to-walk ratio of nearly 11 (10.75) without having incredible stuff. For Shuster — standing 6’3″, 210 lbs. — his success comes from a strong fastball/changeup combo with the former often reaching 97 mph (up from the 88-92 mph heater he threw during his early days at Wake Forest). Shuster keeps it simple: pound the top of the zone with his upper-90s fastball and then generate swings and misses with his devastating low 80s mph changeup. Shuster also wields a slider, but it’s currently considered a below-average offering. Sure, a two-and-a-half pitch pitcher doesn’t scream future Tucker Davidson potential. However, a lefty with gas that can punch out righties with an elite offspeed pitch is a dang good start for the Braves development staff. As far as comparable major leaguer … this guy at Last Word on Baseball has Shuster comped to former Twins and Mets ace Johan Santana. Boy, I sure hope so.