The production from Milwaukee Brewers third basemen last year was abysmal, plain and simple.
Eric Sogard, Luis Urias, Jedd Gyorko, Brock Holt and Jace Peterson had the fourth-worst WAR in the MLB last year at -0.2 and a combined batting average of .200, good for 29th out of 30 teams. An upgrade of some sort was needed at the hot corner in Brew City. Enter Travis Shaw.
A few days ago, the Brewers signed the Mayor of Ding Dong City to a minor league contract worth $1.5MM with another potential $1.5MM in incentives if he makes the roster. There’s also a March 15th opt-out date clause in the contract so it won’t be long until we know if Shaw will be back with the Brewers in the regular season. But why did Milwaukee let him go in the first place?
Travis Shaw’s Rough 2019 Season With Brewers
As you’re probably well aware, Shaw couldn’t hit the ground if he fell off a ladder at the end of his first tenure with the Brewers. In 86 games during the 2019 season, Shaw slashed .157/.281/.270 with 89 strikeouts in 86 games and a WAR of -1.2. So what was the cause of this woeful season?
Well first off, let’s look at his numbers against the fastball. According to Baseball Savant, Shaw had a batting average of .164 against the heater during that 2019 season. Those that have followed the Brewers know that Travis Shaw is a fastball hitter. In his first two years in Milwaukee, he had 21 and 23 home runs respectively against the fastball with a combined average of .276 and a total of 38 doubles.
So was he getting a lot less fastballs during that 2019 campaign? Interestingly enough, he actually had a 0.1% increase of fastballs seen. Now something to take into account here is that he had less than half of the at-bats in 2019 that he had in 2017 and 2018 due to a wrist injury and being sent up and down between the Brewers and their Triple-A affiliate at the time, the San Antonio Missions.
But, he didn’t struggle in the minor leagues like he did at the highest level with the Brewers. Shaw hit .286 in 42 games with the Missions launching 12 home runs and driving in 33 runs. It was simply a funk that he couldn’t get out of and nobody was more puzzled by the struggle than Brewers management.
He had been such an important offensive producer for them in the prior two seasons and was showing similar production in Triple-A, but he just couldn’t break the slump with the major league club.
Travis Shaw Trending Upward
Last season, Shaw saw action in 50 games at third base for the Toronto Blue Jays and he bounced back in a way of sorts. He posted a .239/.306/.411 line with six home runs and 17 RBI’s.
Expected batting average (xBA) is a Statcast metric created to take the defense out of the equation. According to MLB.com, hitters are able to influence exit velocity and launch angle but have no control over what happens to a batted ball once it is put into play so it can be viewed as an interesting element to consider.
In 2020 with the Blue Jays, Shaw still had trouble with the fastball as that was the pitch with the lowest xBA of .229, while offspeed was .249 and breaking was .276. And while it’s encouraging to see his highest xBA for breaking balls of his career coming last year, he needs to find a way to get back to crushing fastballs as he sees them almost 60% of the time.
Some other things to consider about Shaw’s plate discipline trends over the last few years: he is simply whiffing more (20% in 2018 and 30% in 2019), he’s not swinging at pitches deemed as ‘meatballs’ as much (79% in 2018, 72% in 2020) and he’s swinging much more often at the first pitch (23% in 2017 and 34% in 2020). While one could definitely argue that these are hand-picked statistics, there’s not disputing that his approach has changed at the dish.
David Stearns was the mastermind behind the deal that got Travis Shaw to Milwaukee in the first place and now a reunion is in place. “We’re focused on the upside here offensively here, adding an impact bat to the lineup. The truth is, with the way we move our infielders around, conventional positions don’t apply to us all that much. We ask a lot of all of our infielders to play all over the dirt.” Stearns said about Shaw’s eventual replacement in Mike Moustakas, who moved Shaw to second base in 2019.
But the core of that statement is in place now for the recently signed Shaw.
Hopefully Travis Shaw can return to his 2017/2018 form and Stearns can once again be praised for bringing in the one time extra-base-hit machine.