If there is a downside to getting selected by the Atlanta Braves in the first round of the MLB Draft and then signing a multi-million-dollar contract, such as what transpired for left-handed starting pitcher Jared Shuster in June 2020, it’s that the franchise is waist-deep in big league talent, particularly frontline starting pitching.
With said logjam, you can impress in the lower levels of the minors and hold your own at Triple-A, which Shuster has done, but still find yourself waiting for the big call-up. Such is life trying to climb the ranks of an organization with dynastic aspirations, one that is anchored by perhaps the game’s most formidable starting rotation headlined by the trio of Max Fried, Kyle Wright and Spencer Strider.
There is zero doubt that 24-year-old Shuster, whom the Braves selected with the 25th pick in the 2020 MLB Draft, will one day toe the rubber of a big-league mound. It’s even reasonable to believe that the gifted southpaw will crack the 2023 Braves’ Opening Day roster. But it’s also reasonable to believe that had Shuster been drafted by a rebuilding club, such as the Oakland A’s or Pittsburgh Pirates, he would be donning a big-league jersey at this hour.
Armed with a change-up that his former high school coach from Tabor Academy, Kenny Ackerman, describes as otherworldly, the unassuming Shuster has silenced minor league batters this summer while pitching for the Double-A Mississippi Braves and Triple-A Gwinnett Stripers. Sporting an ERA that has hovered around 3.00 all season, Shuster enjoyed a breakout performance for Mississippi Braves back in April when he fanned a career-high 12 Biloxi Shuckers, including eight consecutively over five scoreless frames before the game was called due to rain in the top of the sixth.
“That was a pretty cool moment for sure,” said Shuster in speaking to the Atlanta Jewish Times. “I didn’t even realize it [his eight consecutive punchouts tied a Southern League record] until the rain started coming and the game was over.”
Shuster, who also pitched in the All-Star Futures Game at Dodger Stadium this past July for manager Mike Scioscia, bears some resemblance to Atlanta’s current ace, Fried. Both are tall lefties who wear No.54 and make Jewish baseball fans from Miami to Seattle smile every time they take the hill.
“I know there’s not too many [Jewish ballplayers],” said Shuster. “I love being Jewish. I love being able to represent the Jewish community, so it’s something I’m definitely proud of. It’s been great for me for 24 years. It’s helped my family stay close.”
Similarly to Fried, Shuster has a very laid-back demeanor, rarely, if ever, flashing signs of strong emotion on the mound or appearing hell-bent on establishing his presence with a frightening brush-back pitch.
“Man, he was the quietest kid of all-time,” recalled Ackerman, who coached Shuster for three years at Tabor Academy, a renowned prep school in southeastern Massachusetts, to which the pitching prodigy transferred after posting a microscopic 0.45 ERA and racking up 74 strikeouts while only giving up five walks as a freshman at New Bedford High. (His New Bedford coach, John Seed, recalls how following a 17-strikeout gem against archrival Durfee High School, the opposing coach came over and admitted that his guys took pride in being able to foul a pitch or two off Shuster.)
Despite oozing with talent, every time he stepped on a ball field — he was also a prolific hitter and burner on the basepaths — Shuster largely walked the hallways of Tabor with his shoulders slumped, not exactly exuding the proverbial big man on campus aura.
Indeed, prep school with its rigorous academic standards could humble him at times. Unlike virtually every activity on the diamond, there were aspects of scholarly work that didn’t always come easily to him.
“I was so proud of how hard he worked,” Ackerman remarked about Shuster, who earned a full scholarship to Wake Forest University, where he improved considerably from his freshman to junior seasons, while wowing scouts with his work in the Cape Cod Baseball League in the summer. “He wasn’t doing all the AP classes, but the kid really worked hard in the classroom and went for the extra help that he needed. It wasn’t just like, ‘Hey, I’m here to play baseball and you guys are going to love me,’” Ackerman added.
I know there’s not too many [Jewish ballplayers]. I love being Jewish. I love being able to represent the Jewish community, so it’s something I’m definitely proud of. It’s been great for me for 24 years. It’s helped my family stay close.
Braves fans may very well come to love Shuster, but they may have to be patient and so will Shuster. With the front-end of a rotation at times resembling a modern-day version of Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz, another summer of minor league ball and bus rides and fast food and small crowds, is a distinct possibility.
“I wouldn’t say anything has been too difficult,” Shuster said when asked about his minor league career, which officially began in 2021 with a stint for the High-A Rome Braves. “Maybe the first year having to find housing and live with a few other guys. That’s just always been an issue for minor league players, anywhere you go,” he added.
As the 2022 season dawned, the housing situation, one that was remarkably easier than the 2021 ordeal, represented a strange coincidence. Shuster found himself rooming with Ryan Cusick, a fellow Massachusetts native (Sudbury, Mass.), former Wake Forest teammate, and 2021 first-round pick of the Braves. But merely days into spring training, Cusick was one of several prospects traded to Oakland for first baseman Matt Olson.
It could just as easily have been Shuster heading to the Bay Area. But it wasn’t and now the Braves appear poised to have a pair of mensches holding down their rotation going forward.
“I think it will pay off for them [Braves] in the long run,” predicts Ackerman.
- David Ostrowsky
- Atlanta Braves
- MLB Draft
- Jared Shuster
- Max Fried
- Kyle Wright
- Spencer Strider
- Oakland A’s
- Pittsburgh Pirates
- Tabor Academy
- Kenny Ackerman
- Double-A Mississippi Braves
- Triple-A Gwinnett Stripers
- Biloxi Shuckers
- All-Star Futures Game
- Dodger Stadium
- Mike Scioscia
- New Bedford High
- Durfee High School
- Wake Forest University
- Cape Cod Baseball League
- Glavine and Smoltz
- High-A Rome Braves
- Ryan Cusick