Milwaukee Brewers’ third baseman Travis Shaw is off to a great start this year, but there’s reason to anticipate regression.
Of course, Shaw’s early performance also deserves credit for making the trade look great. But just how good has he been?
For starters, Shaw’s groundball rate on balls in play this year is 52.4%. That’s sky-high, and ranks in the top 15% among qualified hitters. Shaw’s career average groundball rate sits at just 38.8%.
It likely goes without saying that putting the ball on the ground frequently when you’re not known for your speed is a no-no, but Shaw’s blasted six homers and owns a .563 SLG%, so what’s the big deal if his groundball rate is elevated?
Well, those numbers are so high thanks to next key advanced metric, Shaw’s HR/FB%. The league average HR/FB% is 12.7%, meaning that just under thirteen percent of flyballs leave the yard.
Shaw’s career HR/FB% is just above-average, at 13.9%. This year, that number sits at 27.3%. That means that over twice as many of his flyballs have left the yard this year than in the past. That number is completely unsustainable given his hard hit rate.
Ryan Braun led the league in HR/FB% last year at 28.8%, so Shaw’s rate isn’t impossible to maintain, but it is unlikely due to his career numbers. Braun also posted a hard hit percentage at 34.4%. In fact, each of the top 20 hitters in HR/FB% in 2016 had hard hit rates north of 34.0%.
Shaw, however, has just a 30.5% hard hit rate this year. That’s below-average among all Major League hitters, and should not be reasonably expected to sustain the home run rate he’s currently sporting.
Of course, these early season fluctuations are nothing too bizarre, but they could be covering up a troubling batted ball profile.
Instead of hitting the ball in the air 41.6% of the time, as is Shaw’s career average, he’s hitting flyballs just 26.8% of the time. Only 19 qualified hitters are putting the ball in the air less often.
All of this combines to suggest that Shaw isn’t nearly the home run hitter he has been in the early going this year.
In fact, if Shaw’s HR/FB% this year was more along the lines of his career average, his numbers would be significantly diminished. Again consider that his flyballs are leaving the park at twice the rate we could reasonably expect.
So, let’s roll back a few of those dingers, giving him a 2017 HR/FB% more in line with his career average. Half of Shaw’s home runs this year could have been expected to be outs, given his career average HR/FB% and below average hard hit rate.
If Shaw’s HR/FB% was at his career average, he’d have half as many home runs, or three. Those three balls that now didn’t leave the yard, in all likelihood, become outs. Very few non-home run flyballs go for hits, as flyballs are more likely to find gloves and result in outs.
So how does Shaw’s excellent .282/.324/.563 slash look if three of his dingers become flyouts? (For the sake of simpler projection, we’ll assume none of those new flyouts become sacrifice flies.)
This HR/FB%-regressed version of Shaw would be slashing .252/.297/.447. That’s roughly in line with his slash line from 2015-16, .251/.313/.443.
And while this is clearly not the most scientific regression ever conceived, it does address an important concern. Shaw is hitting fewer flyballs than the vast majority of the league, and his home run rate on those flyballs is unsustainably high.
Logic would dictate that his home run rates will drop considerably as the season wears on. That boost in power has also covered up a suppressed walk rate (5.4% of PA, versus 8.1% last year).
Shaw is by most accounts a solid third baseman, and should contribute during the Brewers’ rebuild. How many home runs he’ll hit, however, is up for debate, but unless Shaw starts putting more balls in the air, don’t be surprised if his power numbers drop significantly.