Though he recorded a long home-run on Sunday at Miller Park, it’s time for the Milwaukee Brewers to seriously consider sending down Travis Shaw.
It’s been a rough season for several of the Milwaukee Brewers hitters so far. No one, however, has had a rougher go of it so far than Travis Shaw.
It’s been quite a fall from grace for the Milwaukee Brewers third baseman.
Travis Shaw entered the 2019 season having been one of the team’s leaders in WAR over each of the past two seasons. Shaw was good for an average of four WAR in each of the past two seasons according to Baseball Reference, and was at a 3.6 and 3.5 WAR in each of the past two seasons according to FanGraphs.
Buoyed by a well-above average bat (his OPS+ was 121 and 118 in 2017-2018) and solid defense (his defensive WAR on Baseball Reference was 0.6 and one in each of the past two seasons), Shaw had become one of Major League Baseball’s best third basemen.
This season, though, has been a completely different story. Shaw has the worst WAR of any position player on the Milwaukee Brewers roster right now. Not even Jesus Aguilar, who’s mired in an awful year of his own, has been as bad as Shaw has.
What’s Going Wrong for Shaw?
According to Baseball Reference, Shaw has been good for 0.2 Defensive WAR so far this season. His defense hasn’t been as good as season’s past, but has still been a respectable, if not slightly above average defender at third base.
His significant drop in value is coming from how bad he’s been with the bat.
General Batting Stats
Shaw is batting just .167 at plate so far this season in 180 at-bats.
His OPS, which had been over .800 in four of his previous five seasons in the big leagues, sits at an atrociously low .570 this year. For context, his OPS is actually worse right now than Orlando Arcia’s was last season (.576) when Arcia was one of the worst offensive players in Major League Baseball.
Shaw’s drop in OPS has been fueled by his incredibly poor batting average and his complete lack of power. Shaw’s slugging percentage has dropped from near .500 over each of the past two seasons (.513 in 2017 and .480 in 2018) to under .300 this year (.297). His isolated power is a lowly .128 after being .240 and .239 in each of the previous two seasons.
A brief stint on the IL in May was designed to reboot his season after a poor start. It hasn’t worked.
Shaw was hitting .163 with an OPS of .547 when he was placed on the injured list after May 13th. Since returning to the Brewers on June 4th, he’s gone just 8-45 at the plate, good for a .178 average. His OPS has only slightly improved too (.633 during this stretch). He’s hit just 2-for-21 in his last seven appearances.
Quality of Contact
Given his drop in batting average and power, it might appear at first glance that Shaw’s offensive struggles stem from him making good, hard contact a lot less often than he has in past seasons. His underlying numbers, however, show this is not the case.
Shaw has seen only a slight drop in his hard contact percentage according to MLB Statcast. His hard contact percentage this season currently sits at 36%. That’s only a slight drop from his 38% hard contact rate in 2018, and his 38.9% hard contact rate in 2017.
Shaw’s average exit velocity this year is actually higher (88.6 MPH) than it was in 2017 (88.3 MPH) and 2018 (88.4 MPH). It currently sits right around the league average (he’s in the 48th percentile for exit velocity at the moment).
The quality of Shaw’s contact on batted balls in play is also comparable to previous seasons. Shaw is making hard contact on 39.6% of his batted balls put in play so far this season. That’s only slightly below his rate from last season (39.6%) and is BETTER than it was in his breakout season in 2017 (37.1%). Shaw is hitting line drives at a career high percentage this season as well (21.3%).
There’s been no noticeable increase in his ground-ball rate or a dramatic change in his hit distribution either. He’s pulling the ball (40.5% of his batted balls in play) quite a bit less than last year (45.8%), but is right around his numbers from 2017 (40.3%).
Something else is plaguing his game.
Drop in Contact
Shaw’s struggles stem not from a drop in the quality of the contact he’s making on batted balls in play. Where Shaw is struggling is making contact with the ball to begin with.
Shaw is making contact on just 69% of his swings so far this season. He had made contact on at least 80% or more of his swings in every other year he’s been in the Majors except for 2015 (he was still making contact on 77.3% of his swings that year).
His drop in contact isn’t related to him chasing pitches out of the zone more often either. Shaw’s swinging strike percentage at pitches out of the zone is a career low 26.1% this season. His walk percentage (12.1%) is the second highest of his career.
Shaw has been unable to make contact on pitches in the strike zone consistently. His contact percentage on his swings at balls in the strike zone sits at a career worst 73.8%. He made contact on 85.3% or more of the pitches he swung at in the strike zone in every previous year he’s been in the big leagues.
As a result, Shaw is striking out at a career high 33.3% rate.
Where he’s getting beat in the strike zone
Pitchers have been consistently able to beat him in five specific quadrants of the strike zone. Shaw has yet to record a base hit in ANY of the upper three quadrants of the strike zone this year (up and away, upper-middle, and up and in). He also has just one base hit on the inner three quadrants of the zone (Up and in, middle-in, down and in).
Shaw’s average exit velocity in the inner three quadrants of the zone is well-below average as well. His average exit velocity on pitches up and in is just 68.3 MPH. On pitches middle-in, it’s 77.7 MPH. On pitches down and in, it’s just 79.9 MPH.
The launch angle at which Shaw is hitting the ball has significantly increased as well, from 14.6 and 16.6 in 2017-18, to 22.1 this season. This increase is related to him consistently getting under balls, especially in the inner part of the strike zone., resulting in pop-ups.
Pitchers are giving him pitches to hit in these quadrants of the zone, but he’s rarely been able to make contact on them. The few times he does make contact, it’s not quality contact either as his exit velocities and launch angle suggest. No player is going to have success on offense when pitchers can consistently beat them in most quadrants of the strike zone.
What’s next for Shaw?
Given his struggles to make contact with the ball consistently, the time has come for the Milwaukee Brewers to consider sending Shaw down to Triple A.
Shaw has had ample time now to try and get back on track in the Major Leagues. As his stats before and after his brief IL stint show, Shaw is not hitting any better now than he was prior to that break. One long home run over the weekend doesn’t change that.
Advantages of Sending Him Down
Moving Shaw down has a few advantages. One reason to do it is it would give him time to work out his issues against worse competition and in a lower pressure situation than he’s playing in right now. Shaw’s not going to break out of his slump at the Major League level when guys can consistently beat him with bad pitches like they are now.
Perhaps a prolonged stint down in Triple A, like what Arcia had last year, is just what Shaw needs to reboot his season. He won’t have the pressure of a pennant race hanging over his head down there, allowing him to iron out any of the issues he’s having at the plate without the worry of how it affects the rest of the team.
Another advantage it would give the Milwaukee Brewers is it would allow them to clear an obvious spot on the roster for their hot-hitting top prospect, Keston Hiura. Hiura is hitting too well in Triple A not to be a part of the Major League roster right now.
By sending Shaw down, the Brewers could move their potential all-star second baseman, Mike Moustakas, back to his natural position at third where Shaw has been the every-day guy. This would free up the regular every day second base role for Hiura, thus resolving any concerns they may have about getting him adequate at-bats in the Majors if he was brought up to the roster.
Sending Shaw down also gives the Milwaukee Brewers a few additional games to decide what to do with their other scuffling infielder, Jesus Aguilar. He and Shaw do play different positions, but if the Brewers are going to make room for Hiura now, as they should, either Aguilar or Shaw would probably have to make way to clear a 25-man roster spot for him. Aguilar doesn’t have any remaining options, unlike Shaw.
Sending Shaw down, then, would be a win-win for the player and team. It gives Shaw time to work out his issues at the plate in a low pressure environment. It doesn’t just clear a 25-man roster spot, but also makes regular playing time available for Hiura. It also gives the Brewers extra time to decide what to do with Jesus Aguilar too if they wish to take it.
Given all of this, then, the answer is obvious. It’s time for the Milwaukee Brewers to send down Travis Shaw.