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Travis Shaw and taking the fly ball revolution too far

Travis Shaw was one of the better players in baseball from 2017-18. He put up 7.1 fWAR which made him the 39th most valuable position player over those two seasons, sandwiched between George Springer, Michael Conforto and Buster Posey and Mitch Haniger. His 119 wRC+ again placed him among the top 45 hitters in the game. He was a big part of the Brewers resurgence into a playoff team and was very valuable for them in 2018. He played primarily third base in both seasons, but he logged significant time at second base and saw some action at first as well. Players like this don’t become available too often and if they do they usually come at a significant price. Something had to of gone significantly wrong for Shaw to land on the Blue Jays for just a 1-year $4M deal. By now I am sure you know the story. Shaw’s offense fell apart last season. His wRC+ dropped to 47 and his WAR bottomed out at -0.8.

When looking at what happened to Shaw last season, his struggles were entirely with the bat. Nothing changed on the defensive end; he wasn’t taking his at bats out to the field with him. On offense things were difficult. His power was down significantly going from back to back 30 homer seasons to seven. His ISO fell from .240 and .239 to .113. The biggest red flag has to be in his strikeout rate. Shaw’s strikeout rate jumped from a quite good 20.6% in 2017-18 to a whopping 33.0% in 2019.

In spite of the strikeouts Shaw was able to maintain his excellent walk rate. His 13.3% walk rate was identical to what he did in 2018. He still has a good idea of the strike zone; his O-Swing% was relatively unchanged. He wasn’t out there chasing bad pitches. It’s just when he swung, he swung and missed, a lot.

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O-Contact% Z-Contact% SwStr%
2017 67.0% 87.9% 8.9%
2018 70.9% 87.9% 8.2%
2019 60.5% 76.7% 12.9%

Stats from Fangraphs

Even going back to his time with the Red Sox, Shaw has never made this little contact and swung and missed so much. For the first time in his career Shaw dealt with injuries. He was placed on the 10 day I.L. on May 14th with a right wrist sprain. In a Robert Murray article at The Athletic, Shaw described the injury; “it felt like a knife straight in my wrist.” This was something Shaw dealt with in 2018 as well, though it never forced him to the I.L. The wrist kept Shaw out for close to a month.

Wrist injuries are known to sap power, even when a player returns and is deemed 100%. Shaw was activated from the I.L. on June 4th and from that point to the 27th a span of 17 games, Shaw hit just two home runs, slugged .313 and had a 65 wRC+. The Brewers, in the middle of a playoff race couldn’t wait for Shaw to rediscover his stroke and sent him down to the minors.

In the minors and I don’t know this for certain but my hypothesis is that Shaw dealing with a loss of power from his wrist, started hitting more fly balls in an effort to make up for that lost power. In 42 games in AAA San Antonio, Shaw had a 55.1% fly ball rate. That is up significantly from what he did in 2017 (37.6%) and 2018 (44.5%). The new approach worked for Shaw as he had a 147 wRC+. In the Pacific Coast league that strategy to put everything possible in the air works. Shaw tried to bring that same approach to the majors and found it didn’t translate. Take a look at how Shaw’s approach changed over the course of the 2019 season and compare it to his ’17 and ’18 seasons.

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LD% GB% FB% Exit Velocity (MPH) Launch Angle (°)
2017 19.9% 42.5% 37.6% 88.3 14.6
2018 18.1% 37.4% 44.5% 88.4 16.6
March 2019 – May 13 21.4% 32.1% 46.4% 87.6 22
June 4 – 27 20.7% 34.5% 44.8% 91.3 22
July 26 – August 6 22.2% 11.1% 66.7% 86.1 37
August 31 – September 29 27.8% 11.1% 61.1% 90.6 35

Batted ball stats from Fangraphs, exit velocity and launch angle from Baseball Savant.

For the first half of the season everything for Shaw looked relatively the same. His launch angle was a few degrees higher and he hit a few more flies but nothing out of the ordinary. And then bam after coming back from the minors, Shaw was up there trying to golf everything into the seats. Shaw was also clearly looking middle in for pitches he could drive, something he didn’t do in years prior.

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In 2017 and 2018 Shaw had success waiting for a pitch out over the heart of the plate and did damage on pitches away from him. In 2019 after that stint in the minors he was strictly looking middle in. To get a more visual sense to this, here is Shaw in 2018 crushing a pitch on the outer half of the plate for a home run.

 

And here is in 2019 fouling a similar pitch back:

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I took a screenshot of both swings right at the point of contact (or close to it). In the shot on the left from 2019 Shaw’s stance is much more hunched over as he drops the head of the bat down to get underneath the ball. In the shot on the right his bat is much more level as he looks to hit the ball on a line.

The good news is that Shaw’s exit velocity numbers are fine. It all comes down to his wrist how healthy it is and how much confidence Shaw has in it going into this season. The Blue Jays have shown they can fix a players swing and will need to convince Shaw he doesn’t need such a big launch angle to hit for power. If he can get back to his old swing and approach he is primed for a rebound season. For the Blue Jays this is another low risk high reward signing.