Sunday Notes: Travis Shaw and the Brewers are Sneaky Good

Travis Shaw had arguably the biggest hit of Milwaukee’s season yesterday. With his team on the verge of a crushing 10-inning loss, Shaw stroked a two-run, walk-off home run that helped keep the Brewers in the playoff hunt. A defeat wouldn’t have buried the surprise contenders, but it would have pushed them closer to the brink. They badly needed the win, and the Red Sox castoff provided it.

Even without Saturday’s heroics, Shaw has been a godsend for David Stearns and Co. Acquired over the offseason (along with a pair of promising prospects) for Tyler Thornburg, he’s contributed 31 long balls and an .877 OPS while solidifying the middle of the Milwaukee lineup. Last year in Boston, those numbers were 16 and .726.

The 27-year-old third baseman attributes his breakout to two factors: He’s playing every day, and he’s not stressing about things he can’t control.

“My mindset is a lot different,” Shaw told me earlier this week. “After what I went through last year, I needed to take a step back. There were some things I didn’t agree with, and there were some things I took the wrong way. I didn’t handle them very well

“I tried to play GM. I started reading into stuff — wondering why they’re doing this, why we’re doing that — and it ate at me. I worried about things I shouldn’t have worried about. In the second half, when I got to play, I felt like I had to get two or three hits to stay in the lineup. That didn’t bode well for my mental state, and it obviously didn’t work results-wise.”

The numbers bear that out. Productive prior to the all-star break, Shaw subsequently struggled to keep his head above water — he straddled the Mendoza Line in the second half — and frequently found himself on the bench. In early December, the Red Sox cut bait with their former ninth-round pick.

“I was a little shocked when I got traded, but at the same time, I wasn’t super surprised,” said Shaw. “I knew Pablo Sandoval was going to get another opportunity, so if there was going to be an odd man out, I was probably going to be it.”

A change of managers has been to his liking. While careful not to criticize John Farrell, Shaw’s critique of Craig Counsell is telling.

“Craig was a position player, and he’s more recently out of the game,” said Shaw. “He’s been through the grind as a starter and as a bench guy. I think position-player managers have a different vibe about them than pitcher managers. Craig is really laid back. He relates to his players really well.

“Guys have a little more free rein here — I have 10 stolen bases (in 10 attempts). They’ve given me a green light to steal if I want to. There’s a lot of trust from the manager that the team is going to make the right decisions.”

No green light with the Red Sox?

“I didn’t have a red light, but I was definitely a lot more cautious,” explained Shaw. “This year I’ve been more aggressive. I’ve been able to sneak up on some people.”

With plenty of help from Shaw, so have the Milwaukee Brewers.

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Prior to the start of the season, Arizona assistant GM Amiel Sawdaye spoke of the culture he and the rest of the D-Backs front office are working to build. Torey Lovullo — the postseason-bound ball club’s manager — echoed that message when I caught up with him a month ago.

This past week, I asked Milwaukee skipper Craig Counsell for his thoughts on culture building. Is it a tangible thing?

“We all try to create a good working environment, and a place where the players can be the best versions of themselves,” answered Counsell after a pause. “That’s a big part of our job. And the players try to create it for themselves, so that they can perform at their be. Everybody, in every organization… that’s what you’re trying to do. You’re never come up with some objective measurement of that, but you’re always going to work to do it.”

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Count Adam Rosales among those who considers a winning culture real — he’s seeing it first hand, having been acquired by the Diamondbacks from the A’s at the July 31 trade deadline. Rosales told me in late August that he’s been impressed with what he’s seen with his new team.

“Most Major League Baseball clubs are very organized and very professional,” said Rosales. “But the Arizona Diamondbacks… I mean, the communication and leadership here are really strong. They make sure we know what we need to do on a daily basis. I’ve been around a bit (five teams over 10 seasons) and the way I see it, it’s the little things that make championship clubs.”

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When I first wrote about Matt Olson, he was 20 years old and wrapping up a season where he led the Pacific Coast League with 37 home runs. Three years later, he’s showing off his prodigious power in an Oakland uniform. Since being called up by the A’s in mid June, the sweet-swinging first baseman has gone deep 24 times in 210 plate appearances. His slash line is a McGwire-esque .262/.357/.667.

The bridge between those aforementioned seasons included an impactful mechanical adjustment. Olson has always been strikeout prone, and last September he went just 2 for 21 in his first taste of big league baseball. Some tightening up was in order.

“When I got up here last year, they wanted to address some issues, and my way of addressing them was to move my hands out in front of my body more,” Olson told me recently. “Before, when I would get loaded, I would tuck them back. That was causing me to cut myself off — I was swinging against my body — so I moved them out to where I can go directly to the ball, as opposed to having to kind of spin off to get my barrel there.”

When Olson barrels up baseballs, bleacher creatures receive souvenirs. His average home run distance this year is 403 feet, and at 42.1% his HR/FB rate is the highest among players with at least 100 plate appearances (Rhys Hoskins ranks second, at 36.7%).

In our 2014 interview, Olson owned up to how his hitting environment was helping inflate his power numbers. To what does he attribute his current surge?

“The Cal League was obviously stocked with great places to hit,” acknowledged Olson. “Here… I guess I’ve just felt good all year. It’s always been in my bag to hit for power, and this is how it’s happening to come together.”

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Hunter Renfroe had a three-homer game this past Wednesday. That brought his season total to 24, which is a solid output for a rookie with 418 at bats. His other numbers aren’t as impressive. The free-swinging San Diego Padres outfielder is slashing .232/.288/.467, and he’s drawn just 27 walks — 15 of them in the month of May — while striking out 129 times.

Midway through the season, I asked the work-in-progress slugger what he’s been seeing from opposing pitchers.

“You get pitched to based on the pitcher’s strengths and on your weaknesses,” responded Renfroe. “You know what yours are, and you kind of know what his are, so you try to figure out what he’s going to do to you, first at bat, second at bat. Outside of that, you just try to zone him up.”

Peaks and valleys have dominated Renfroe’s maiden campaign. I enquired as to whether they’re largely because of adjustments he has and hasn’t made, or if they’re more a matter of how he’s felt at the plate.

“It’s been a little of both,” responded Renfroe. “You have your hot streaks where you feel really good, and no matter what they throw up there you can hit it. You also have some spots where you miss your pitch, and then get two or three nasty ones in the dirt that you end up swinging at. I’ve had some good stretches. I’ve had some stretches that haven’t been good.”

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Jordan Luplow began making believers of his skeptics this summer. An afterthought on prospect lists, the 23-year-old outfielder hit .302/.381/.527, with 23 home runs, between Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis. Yesterday he was named the Pirates minor league player of the year.

When I asked about his breakthrough, the Fresno State product first pointed to the tutoring he’s received coming up through the Pittsburgh system. From there, he segued to reps — “you see more pitches in pro ball, and just keep learning” — and then to his attention to detail.

“I’m picking up little things within the game that are helping me be successful,” said Luplow, who has a .601 OPS in 70 big-league plate appearances. “That’s especially true now that I’m up here. I’m learning every day by watching these guys — these older guys in this locker room — go about their business.”

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SEPTEMBER TIDBITS

The Pirates have used just seven starting pitchers, which would equal the franchise record for the fewest in a season. The 1902, 1972, and 1997 teams also used just seven starters.

The Phillies haven’t used a left-handed starter this season. The last time that happened in franchise history was 1918.

Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez has 85 extra-base hits. The American League record for extra-base hits by a switch-hitter is held by Mark Teixeira, who had 87 in 2005.

The Miami Marlins are 64-44 when hitting at least one home run, and 7-37 in games where they haven’t homered.

Giancarlo Stanton has 116 runs scored and 121 RBI. Dee Gordon has 106 runs scored and 31 RBI.

Cincinnati’s Scooter Gennett has 27 home runs in 435 at bats. He came into the season with 35 home runs in 1,527 at bats.

Yesterday, White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu joined Joe DiMaggio (1936-39) and Albert Pujols (2001-10) as the only players in MLB history to begin their careers with four straight seasons of 25-plus homers and 100-plus RBI.

Earlier this week, Rhys Hoskins became the first Phillies player to draw at least 30 walks in his first 40 career games since Heinie Sand in 1923.

Robinson Cano hit his 300th home run on Thursday. He has 288 as a second baseman, which in all likelihood ranks second all-time behind Jeff Kent (351). Rogers Hornsby had 301 career home runs, but played 603 games at positions other than second base; his position-by-position totals are unclear.

Houston Astros hitters have the fewest strikeouts (1,010) in either league. They lead the majors in runs scored ((829), batting average (.281), hits (1,484) and doubles (325).

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This season’s Rookie of the Year selections are pretty straightforward — Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger promise to be runaway winners in their respective leagues. Down-ballot decisions are another story. Should players like Matt Chapman, Rhys Hoskins, and Matt Olson — all with fewer than 300 plate appearances — be ranked above or below full-season regulars like Josh Bell, Trey Mancini, and Manny Margot?

Similar quandaries exist among the pitchers. How will BBWAA voters weigh the 65-inning, zero-save dominance of Chad Green versus the 151-inning, double-digit win totals of Kyle Freeland and German Marquez? And how do you go about comparing a Green to an Olson?

I don’t have a vote this year, but if I did, this is how I’d be inclined to order the top rookies with one week left in the season:

American League:

Aaron Judge
Andrew Benintendi
Trey Mancini
Chad Green
Matt Olson

National League:

Cody Bellinger
Manny Margot
Paul DeJong
Rhys Hoskins
Josh Bell

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Jerry Howarth has been calling Toronto Blue Jays games since 1981, and as you might imagine, he has plenty of stories. Here is one he shared with me this summer:

“My late partner, Tom Cheek, was always very serious,” said Howarth. “He liked to golf, and would work really hard to break 100. He would play with Cito Gaston. Four or five times a year they would have a Blue Jays tournament.

“One day I got to the ballpark and walked into the radio booth, and he was all smiles and happy. I said, ‘Tom, what happened?’ He said, ‘Yesterday I played golf with Cito.’ I said, ‘I know that. How’d it go?’ He laughed and said, ‘I got into Cito’s wallet. On the last hole, I made an 18-foot putt, he missed his, and I won 20 bucks from him — best 20 bucks ever!’ When he said that, I burst out laughing. He was so proud of that.”

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

Daniel Brown of the (San Jose) Mercury News went in search of Tim Lincecum, who — as Brown wrote — has left and gone away.

Over at The Miami Sun-Sentinel, Tim Healy told us about how Marlins pitcher Junichi Tazawa has helped create jobs at a North Carolina candy factory.

At The Detroit News, Lynn Henning opined that parting with Brad Ausmus was a logical step in a new Tigers era.

According to Sports Illustrated’s Ben Reiter, the Astros’ Justin Verlander trade violated their philosophy, and may win them a pennant.

Doc Medich was profiled by Gregory H. Wolf for the SABR BioProject.

Oakland A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first MLB player to kneel during the national anthem yesterday, and Susan Slusser wrote about it at The San Francisco Chronicle.

RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

MLB teams have combined to record 40,332 hits and strike out 38,230 times this season. In 1998 — the first year there were 30 teams — there were 44,489 hits and 31,893 strikeouts.

Al Kaline recorded his 3,000th hit on this date in 1974.

In 1927, at age 40, Ty Cobb hit .357 and was caught stealing 16 times, the most in the American League.

On September 23, 1998, Chicago Cubs outfielder Brant Brown dropped a routine fly ball with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, allowing three runs to score and giving the Milwaukee Brewers an 8-7 win.

On September 28, 1995, Montreal Expos reliever Greg Harris became the first pitcher in the century to pitch ambidextrously in a game.

George Payne had a record of 1-1 with the 1920 Chicago White Sox in his only big league season. The righty from Mount Vernon, Kentucky won 348 games in the minor leagues.

The 1943 Red Sox played 31 extra-inning games.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Anon
4 years ago

I figured Mantle must have had at least 87 xbh at some point, but he never topped 79. I never realized how few doubles he hit. He only topped 28 once and only once had more than 17 after age 27