When Milwaukee signed Travis Shaw to a minor-league contract this past spring, there certainly wasn’t an expectation that Shaw would return to the glory of 2017-18 during his first go-around as a member of the Brew Crew, when he hit 63 home runs. The low expectations reflect how sharp his decline has been over the past two seasons, as Shaw was demoted to Triple-A in 2019 before becoming a member of the Toronto Blue Jays. Now back in Milwaukee, Shaw has had a solid start to the 2021 campaign, slashing .241/.290/.448, providing something that the Brewers have desperately needed from their new cleanup man after suffering a multitude of injuries, including Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich.
And if you’re trying to find an answer to how Shaw improved himself, it’s not easily discernible. The left-handed slugger is a model of consistency, where nothing about his swing or stance changes from year to year. Look at these three swings below — from 2017, 2019, and 2021, respectively:
The stance, the leg kick, bat path, you name it — they are all carbon copies of each other.
Yet somehow, Shaw still has expected stats of a .271 xBA, .482 xSLG, and .340 xwOBA (.321 wOBA) are some of the highest marks of his career. Then you look at his career-low walk rate of 4.8% in the early going combined with striking out 29% of the time, and you wonder how he could possibly be improving — it’s a far cry from his 13.3% BB and 18.3% K in 2018.
So early in the season, it’s hard to make a legitimate claim into how Shaw is truly doing just by looking at his expected stats, but there are clear changes in Shaw’s approach that make him an improved player from years past.
Hitting High Heat
Shaw was fantastic in his first season with the Red Sox in 2015 with a 118 wRC+, following it up with a pedestrian, yet acceptable 104 wRC+ first four months of the season. The next couple of months were brutal, resulting in a 46 wRC+. It resulted in the Red Sox bringing up top prospect Yoán Moncada to play the hot corner — a failed experiment — and soon enough, Shaw found himself being exchanged for reliever Tyler Thornburg during the offseason.
That funk was caused in large part by Shaw’s inability to connect with heaters up in the zone — and teams latched on to that.
|04/05 – 07/31||13.5||68.1||20.8||0.167||0.120|
|08/01 – 10/03||17.4||71.4||19.0||0.288||0.296|
While Shaw improved over the next couple of months on those types of pitches, it was still not nearly enough to offset how poor he was to begin with. With teams targeting the upper third, you can now understand why the third baseman’s production dropped so steeply. Though, this is not something that Shaw has necessarily fixed either.
As we see in 2019 and 2020, pitchers used a greater percentage of their four-seamers at the top of the zone than ever before and it led them to get Shaw to whiff at an outstanding rate — 27.6% and 33.3% SwStr, respectively. While those should undoubtedly take most of your attention, there is a greater discussion to be had when considering the other numbers.
“Yes, and I was actually hitting with J.D. Martinez this spring — with a lot of other guys, as well — and I was struggling with high velocity on the high pitch. This was off a machine. J.D. was telling me that when he’s getting that high fastball — something that’s hard to get on top of — instead of trying to hit it off the pitcher’s head, he’s trying to hit it at his feet. That helped me out a little bit, as well.”
Conceptually, this makes a lot of sense. As we know, four-seamers with elite vertical movement — as a lot do these days — means that the ball has “ride” to it. This means when it’s up in the zone, Martinez’s mental cue of trying to essentially smash the ball into the ground will mean that he’ll be able to square it up more often than if he didn’t.
Martinez’s power stroke is undoubtedly in the lower two-thirds of the zone, but he is still a good hitter on heaters at the top. His mental cue of hitting the ball down has helped him produce good numbers against those types of pitches in seasons past.
Now, let’s look back at Shaw. In his two poor seasons, notice how Shaw’s launch angle on those pitches is higher compared to the three years prior. For someone that struggled by swinging under tons of high fastballs to begin with, those figures were obviously working against him. So far in 2021, he’s seemingly reversed that trend.
Shaw has gotten on top of heaters in these couple of weeks and it’s allowed him to make more contact, producing a swinging strike rate of only 12.5% on the aforementioned pitches, nearly a third of what it was last year.
Visually, this is what the approach looks like.
At first glance, there’s nothing nice about this. It’s a high fastball that gets chopped right into the ground. While Jake Woodford’s fastball doesn’t have exceptional “ride”, it’s still an interesting development that Shaw was able to get on top of it despite its elevated location. In years past, this would have likely resulted in Shaw getting under the pitch — either fouled back, a pop-up, or even a whiff.
What’s truly fascinating about this development is whether or not Shaw is doing this by design. Since there is no reporting around that suggests this is intentional, it’ll be interesting to see if this effort sticks in the long run.
Things To Watch Going Forward
While Shaw possibly overcoming his greatest flaw is the most noteworthy, there are two other things we should watch as the season progresses.
Firstly, Travis Shaw has had success throughout his career pulling the ball.
Shaw is pulling a career-high 52.5% of batted balls this season, far beyond his prior high of 44.8% in 2018. In theory, Shaw should have better results by hitting his best-batted balls more often, however, there have been a greater number of ground balls as a result.
With what we talked about in the last section about getting on top of the high ball, as well as sporting a lower average launch angle (15.9°) overall, Shaw should be grounding out more often and it’ll make him more susceptible to the shift. Since he’s fared poorly against the shift already (.224 wOBA shift, .391 wOBA no shift), finding a good equilibrium between pulling and keeping the ball off the ground will be critical to his success.
Lastly, his walk rate (4.8%) and strikeout rate (29%) are fairly concerning, given he’s posted at least a 7% walk rate since his rookie season in 2015. With his zone contact increasing to 84.9% — at the level it was before 2019-20 — and chasing at the lowest rate of his career at 24.6%, while also having the lowest whiff rate of his career so far at 18.7%, it’s hard to imagine that his walk to strikeout ratio won’t converge towards one another if the underlying metrics stay in place.
In summation, we could be back to seeing Travis Shaw producing at his old levels while becoming a more well-rounded hitter in the process, but we need to see him make the necessary adjustments over the next few weeks.
Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)