When Travis Shaw first came up through the Red Sox system, there was a growing fanfare about a decent prospect rising through a farm with a track record of success. And when his wRC+ went down from 116 to 87 from his first taste to his first full season, some caution was thrown around. Enough, in fact, that when Tyler Thornburg became available from the Milwaukee Brewers, he was deemed non-essential enough to be sent as compensation (along with a few other pieces).
As a guy who was about to play in his age 27 season, it really would seem like a low risk move, as Shaw crept closer to post hype prospect than major league star – although his 1.5 fWAR in both seasons makes him a very serviceable player.
And of course, as these things tend to work out, Shaw has been absolutely lighting it up this year. He has been just one of a handful of surprises on the upstart Brewers who now find themselves in the thick of the playoff race, tied in their division with the powerhouse Cubs (even though they just won the World Series, that still feels weird to say). He is hitting .297 (as of Wednesday) with an insane .279 isolated slugging, cranking 23 bombs already and seemingly cementing himself as a piece for the Brewers to build around.
But to change the narrative once again, Shaw has been the beneficiary of a good heaping of luck. To be fair, few breakout seasons are completely void of some good luck on the side of the player, but from what Shaw is seeing, he might as well go buy a few lottery tickets while he’s at it.
His .333 BABIP isn’t necessarily crazy, especially since he has been hitting a lot of grounders, but therein lies the problem. While power has always been the way to the heart of GMs with cash to spare, we’ve seen something more than a simple resurgence the past few years with guys going the extreme route and going for homers every pitch.
Yet Shaw is going against the grain, dropping his fly ball percentage from 44.6 % to 35.8%, and increasing his grounders from 36.3% to 45.1%. While this is fine for contact hitters, it is a nearly impossible pace to maintain for someone to continue – this much power without fly balls that conventionally drive power numbers.
Shaw is having to hit a quarter of his fly balls for dingers at his batted ball profile, an even 25.0% – a mark putting him just beneath Miguel Sano and Bryce Harper. While Miller Park is going to help this number, it simply takes an exceptional talent to continue that, and it just doesn’t look like Shaw is that type of talent. His personal reaction is that he has been able to focus more on pitches lower in the zone while hitting more power line drives, but statistically that sort of thing doesn’t exist as hitters have little to no control of a line drive rate different than 20%.
Below is his spray chart from this year so far, with each datum sorted by hit type (grounder, fly ball, etc.):
It’s not something special, and in fact cries for more shifting opportunities. While data doesn’t exist (publicly) on how well he does versus shifts, we do know that properly executed they will drive down the BABIP of hitters, especially lefties. It’s something that appears to calm a lot of optimism over his plus contact heading forward.
As for his power, to keep up high HR/FB rates as a hitter, fly ball distance is necessary. We see Shaw sitting at a 183 average; that’s not too bad actually, but his cohorts in this list are Sandy Leon and Jurickson Profar, neither of which are putting up even average ISO numbers (and Profar is at .034, but that’s a topic for a different article). This is a far cry from his HR/FB cohorts, who reach as high as 213 average distance.
A counter would be maybe he is still hitting the ball hard enough that when he gets under enough, he’s able to send it over the fence thanks to a strong stroke and favorable home park conditions. But again, his compatibles with exit velocity are less than impressive, Howie Kendrick and David Freese, who also have miserable power numbers.
While Shaw clearly has talent and a new approach to help justify his breakout year, there just isn’t enough substance inside of it to consider it a lasting effect. He hits on the ground too often, and doesn’t hit the ball hard or far enough to maintain homer and double numbers to compensate. He is still a good player, but the elite bat some are thinking about just doesn’t exist with Shaw now, at least not this season’s iteration.
Be smart and sell high on a guy who has got a few horseshoes in his locker, or perhaps a four-leaf clover in his batting gloves.
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