Heading into 2017 third baseman Travis Shaw was as off the radar as a flight in the mid-Atlantic. After an exciting 226 at-bat, 13 home run debut with the Red Sox in 2015, Shaw was granted the starting third base job for the 2016 season. Unfortunately he regressed significantly, hitting only 16 home runs in an entire season’s worth of at bats and displaying a puny 89 wRC+ and 421 slugging percentage. At that point Shaw was already written off by most fantasy managers. Matters got worse when the Red Sox, who had no other viable options at third on the MLB roster, traded Shaw to the Brewers for a reliever with elbow issues, a move that essentially said “Travis, you’re bad, we don’t want you.”
Boy did Boston look silly. While the Red Sox had the worst production from third base in the league through the all-star break, the 27-year old Shaw was a revelation in Milwaukee, showing increased power, speed and patience on the way to an end of season triple slash line of 273 / 349 / 513. Shaw ended up with 31 home runs, 101 RBIs and 10 steals, accumulating one of the most well-rounded fantasy performances of any third baseman. In my ESPN league that counts R / HR / RBI / TB / SB / OBP as offensive stats, Shaw ranked as the fifth most productive third baseman on the player rater.
A keener eye at the plate
After Shaw’s meager hitting 2016 season the last thing most people expected was a robust 69 extra-base hits and across the board improvement in rate and counting stats in 2017. What prompted this exciting change? The reasons are threefold.
First, and perhaps most importantly, Shaw’s plate discipline improved significantly. In this era of launch angles and exit velocity the fundamentals of taking walks and avoiding strikeouts can get lost in the shuffle, however bettering one’s walk to strikeout ratio is still the most direct and impactful way to improve aptitude at the plate. And that’s precisely what Shaw did, improving his BB/K ratio from 0.32 in both 2015 and 2016 to 0.42 last season, a 33% relative improvement.
Shaw achieved this by taking a more measured approach. He cut down on swings on pitches outside of the zone from 32.7% to 29.3%. As a result, his swinging strike rate went down from 10.7%, roughly average in this day and age, to an impressive 8.9%. A walk rate nearing 10% and a strikeout rate in the low 20% range will play all day in the 2018 MLB, so good on Shaw for making the adjustments necessary to get there. One additional point to consider is that Shaw was a very patient hitter in the minors, routinely scoring BB/K ratios well above 0.50. Sometimes it takes a hitter some time to get acclimated to major league pitching.
The second change was an increase in power hitting when the lefty-swinging Shaw did put the ball in play. Interestingly, this increased power story isn’t written by the “he hit more flyballs” approach common in today’s game. Shaw’s flyball rate actually went down significantly, from 44.6% in 2016 to 37.6% in 2017 while his groundball rate rose accordingly. In a vacuum this might be viewed negatively, however consider that Shaw did a lot more with with flyballs in 2017. In particular, Shaw’s hard hit rate on flyballs increased from 35.9% to 45.0%, while his pull rate on flyballs increased from 25.6% to 33.1%.
In terms of power hitting, pulled flyballs are the best type. Particularly hard hit, pulled flyballs. The changes in hard hit and pull rate are evident in Shaw’s 1.278 OPS on flyballs in 2017 compared to 915 in 2016. His flyball BABIP actually went down from .150 to .132 year to year, so the improvement came from turning fly outs and doubles into home runs.
Some might look at Shaw’s HR/FB rate, which increased from 10.3% to 20.5%, with skepticism. But consider a couple things. First, improved batted ball authority and pull frequency on flyballs will naturally increase the amount that leave the yard. Second, Shaw made a transition from a park with the worst home run factor in right field in baseball in Fenway to much friendlier confines in Milwaukee. Take a look at Shaw’s spray chart from last year set to Miller Park on the left and Fenway on the right.
Immediately we notice that Shaw hit a lot of bombs last year – homers that cleared the fence with room to spare. That’s a good thing in terms of his odds at replicating the improvement in HR/FB rate. The other thing to take note of is how much Fenway could have stifled his home run production. I count seven to eight home runs that might have been doubles or fly outs in the spacious Fenway right field (admittedly, I don’t know which balls were hit home and away, so there is a bit of projection in this). Granted, Shaw would have earned more hits opposite field, but I think it’s reasonable to conclude that the move to Miller helped him a lot. The numbers bear it out too, with his HR/FB rate at home increasing from 8.5% in 2016 to 15.0% in 2017.
Sir, how fast where you going?
Shaw, at a hefty 6’4″, 230lbs, certainly doesn’t seem like your prototypical base stealer. He sits in the bottom quartile of MLBers in Statcast’s sprint speed metric, right around the likes of Rhys Hoskins, Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday. So yeah, he’s not fast.
But somehow he managed to go a perfect 10/10 on steals last year. The previous year in Boston he went 5/6 and he’s an impressive 15/17 on his MLB career. In the minors Shaw went an okay but not great 29/40. Some players, despite lacking for foot speed, are adept at picking their spots and getting a good read on the pitcher. Shaw seems like one of those players. I didn’t have the time to look this up, but given that Craig Counsell’s Brewers have been the most aggressive team on the basepaths in baseball, I wouldn’t be surprised if Shaw was on first for a bunch of double steal opportunities, thus granting him easy access to a steal.
Shaw is never going to be a guy who you can bank on double digit steals from, but I think a floor of five with the upside of 11-12 is a reasonable expectation. Given the dearth of steals in fantasy these days, a guy sneakily capable of producing a 30 home run, 10 steal season is very valuable.
What to expect this year
Shaw’s gains last season came largely from underlying adjustments in his approach. He swung at less bad pitches and subsequently reduced his strikeout rate. He also made a concerted effort to make better contact on pitches in the zone than simply selling out for flyballs. This led to an end of season stat line that looks repeatable to me. His HR/FB rate around 20% is probably appropriate for a player of his size and strength as well as his improved flyball batted ball metrics. His BABIP has consistently hovered in the low 300s throughout his career, and also seems repeatable going forward because of his higher groundball rate last season.
On top of that, the Brewers improved markedly over the offseason by adding Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich to an already stout offense. This should only serve to benefit Shaw, with more runners on base to drive-in and more turns in the batting order because of it.
Perhaps I’m bullish, but I’m seeing an 85 / 35 / 100 / 8 / 275 season from Shaw. He’s currently the 88th player off the draft board according to FantasyPros, which is curious to me since ESPN has him ranked 105th. Somewhere around 90 is an appropriate draft position (7th-8th round), and if you manage to snag him after that then it’s gravy.