Oftentimes, the Braves organization will execute two major promotions for its top-performing minor leaguers, with the first one — at least in recent years — coming as early in the season as the first week of June. For example: back in 2019, catcher William Contreras made the jump from High-A Florida to Double-A Mississippi on June 5 of that season after hitting .263 with 14 XBH in a 50-game sample with the Fire Frogs (albeit, that year the minor league season didn’t start a month late). If Atlanta thinks a player is ready, the organization certainly doesn’t hesitate to challenge its young talent. And it seems pretty logical, because boredom is probably not the best thing for a prospect’s development.
Speaking of the 2019 campaign, that’s the year the Braves drafted Texas A&M star shortstop Braden Shewmake 21st-overall and signed the then-21-year-old to a whopping $3.1-million signing bonus. Shewmake wasn’t the top pick for Atlanta that year, that selection went to Baylor catcher Shea Langeliers (for a $4.4-milllion bonus); however, it was clear that the former was much more comfortable during his debut season as a pro as Shewmake out OPS’d his draft-mate Langeliers by some 144 points (.796 vs. .652) overall and wound up finishing the year two levels higher at Double-A Mississippi.
A lot of Braves Country, including myself, looked at Shewmake’s success two seasons ago as a sign that he would swiftly shoot up the organizational ladder, and those thoughts were confirmed when he (like Langeliers) began 2021 back with the M-Braves.
But instead of getting ahead of ourselves, perhaps we should’ve looked at the early warning signs from that 2019 season. The truth is, Shewmake struggled mightily in Double-A in ’19 — it’s just that his numbers were so good in Single-A Rome that it sort of masked the poor performance once promoted. With Rome, Shewmake nearly walked as many times as he struck out (21 BB / 29 K) on his way to a terrific 151 wRC+ and .394 wOBA. However, with Mississippi that season, the K rate nearly doubled and his wRC+ shrunk almost 100 points. Now, of course, we’re talking just a 14-game sample with the M-Braves, versus 51 games at Rome, given the Braves promoted Shewmake in mid-August of that campaign (another common time for promotion for the Braves org), but it’s still evident that the prospect shortstop was a little out of his element at the Double-A level. Although, considering it was still just his first year as a pro player, the struggles were more than understandable.
But fast-forward to the current season and you’ll see that maybe the small sample of data from 2019 was more than just a young player still trying to find his footing as a professional baseball player. So far in 2021, Shewmake has been absolutely dreadful in Double-A… and it doesn’t appear to be getting any better anytime soon.
Through Tuesday’s games, with a total of 59 PA this season (a sample-size of just seven more PA than he accrued at the level in ’19), Shewmake was at a putrid 6 wRC+. Yes, that’s right… a six. The 23-year-old is slashing just .093/.169/.204 for the year, and his latest scuffle has him in the midst of a 1 for 18 funk (.056 AVG) with only one XBH in his last five games. In fact, of his 15 games in 2021, Shewmake has recorded a hit in just four of them as the line of 0 for 4s are starting to pile up.
UPDATE: Make that a .086 AVG for the 2021 season and now a current 1 for 22 stretch, given Shewmake went 0 for 4 in Wednesday’s game.
I saw a tweet last night that really put things into perspective: outfielder Michael Harris — another Braves prospect that caught a lot of attention this past offseason — currently sports a .347 AVG. Meanwhile, Shewmake’s OPS is at just .348.
The only somewhat positive from all of this is that his sharp decline doesn’t seem to stem completely from strikeouts, though Shewmake’s definitely on his way with his 33.9% K-rate as of Wednesday morning (though that mark was bloated a bit by a four-game stint from May 9-14 when he struck out seven times in 15 AB).
Unfortunately, I haven’t seen enough ABs and, despite an improvement in the area over the last few years, there really isn’t a ton of batted-ball data for minor leaguers floating around on the internet. Pointing to one contributing factor for Shewmake’s struggles this season is a little difficult. However, FanGraphs does provide some (more general) batted-ball data. But for Shewmake, there’s not much of a takeaway right now. Other than a crazy-high and unsustainable infield-fly-ball rate of 44.4%, his line-drive, groundball and flyout rates are all within 2-3 percentage points of one another relative to his 2019 season, as is his tendency to pull the ball or go the other way. That tells me, along with his roughly 12.5% increase in K rate this year, that there has been some tough luck to go along with Shewmake’s obvious swing-and-miss issues, which at least projects a little bit of optimism.
But I’ll tell you what won’t project confidence and optimism for Shewmake, or anyone in the business of keeping tabs of the Braves many prospects, is if Shewmake finds himself demoted next month. Given his status as a top 10 prospect within the Braves organization, it would be a bit surprising to see him moved down to High-A Rome at this point, but given just how overmatched he seems to be… what’s the alternative? Do the Braves just continue to let him fall off a cliff in Mississippi?
Usually a level-change in June is for promotion purposes — not for a demotion, as it’s much more logical to move up a hot player after 20ish games than kill his spirits by moving him down after a tough start to the season. Could you imagine how difficult of a pill it would be to swallow for Shewmake, to go an entire season without an opportunity to play ball in 2020, only to get demoted after struggling out of the gate this year? Yeah, that’s probably not in his best interest, or the Braves’ for that matter.
But at some point, something will need to be done. Perhaps Shewmake just needs a breather, a week or so off to work on mechanics and clear his mind. There’s still a ton of season left to go and plenty of time to turn things around, and I’m sure the Braves are doing their best to ensure Shewmake understands that. But you can’t help but feel for the kid, for this is truly a terrible stretch for him.
All of this is made much worse when you consider the expectations were so high for Shewmake this season. I would go as far as to say that, leading up to the 2021 campaign, he was probably one of the three-most hyped up prospects out of the Braves’ system… and for good reason given how well he hit in 2019.
It’s probably not quite time to panic yet, but it will be interesting to see how his poor performance is handled going forward.