Travis Shaw, Breakout Hitter and Contrarian

PITTSBURGH — Travis Shaw isn’t caught up in trends.

In a season when so many hitters are investigating their launch angles and trying to lift balls up into the mysterious jet stream that has settled over major-league playing surfaces, Shaw is engaged in the exact opposite endeavor. He is trying to put the ball on the ground, and he’s in the midst of a breakout season.

The Red Sox would love to have a mulligan on the December multi-player deal that sent Shaw and two prospects to Milwaukee for Tyler Thornburg, who is out for the season after surgery to treat thoracic outlet syndrome. Entering play Tuesday, Shaw was slashing .293/.361/.564 with 20 homers, acceptable defense at third base, and a 2.7 WAR. He was tied as the 22nd most valuable position player in the game to start the day.

Of course, this is a different hitter than the one whom the Red Sox traded away.

“Philosophy, honestly,” said Shaw of the reason behind his breakout with the Brewers. “Everyone talks about launch angle, launch angle, launch angle. This year, I’ve tried to hit the ball on the ground more. Everyone is trying to hit it in the air. For me, when I try to hit the ball on the ground, I hit more home runs. I am more consistent with my swing.”

This seems counterintuitive, bizarre. But it’s working. For the first time in his brief major-league career, Shaw is hitting more ground balls (44.5%) than fly balls (36.0%). Throughout most of his minor-league career, he was a fly-ball hitter. And yet the quality of his contact has improved as he has tried to hit balls into the infield turf.

“The air-out/ground-out thing is completely opposite of what it’s been for my career,” Shaw noted.

When he puts the ball in the air, 23.5% of his fly balls are going for home runs, a career best. (Miller Park doesn’t hurt.)

While his exit velocity on fly balls and line drives is up slightly, from 92.9 mph last season to 93.5 mph this season, what has changed dramatically is his effectiveness when offering at pitches down in the zone, where more pitches are being thrown this season despite all the focus on spin rate and rise.

Consider Shaw’s slugging percentages by zone against pitches lower in the zone in 2016 over 530 plate appearances:

Then consider Shaw’s slugging percentage in the lower part of the zone and below it this season:

Shaw feels that, what the focus on hitting hard, low line drives and ground balls has done for him, is to keep his bat in the hitting zone longer. And when he explains the concept that way, he doesn’t sound so different than Josh Donaldson or J.D. Martinez.

“I think it helps against a lot of the offspeed pitches,” Shaw said of his approach. “This year, I’ve done pretty well against changeup. Hitting the ball on the ground, to me, keeps my swing long through the zone. When I’m thinking hard [contact] to shortstop, your bat is still in the zone, you can catch the ball out in front. It’s more of a leveling out swing. Last year, it was more in and out of the zone. This year, I am trying to keep the barrel in longer.”

Shaw might be articulating the same concept as, say, a Martinez, but it’s interesting that explaining a concept in different ways, with different words, can resonate differently with different players. But Shaw might be on to something with his effectiveness against spin and offspeed pitches.

Shaw’s exit velocity against sliders, curves and changeups, this season is 88.6 mph — compared to 86.5 mph last year.

This year, Shaw is crushing sliders, having recorded a .342 average and .707 slugging mark.

Here’s some video evidence of Shaw’s success — in this case, against an Ivan Nova breaking ball earlier this season:

And more evidence — in this case, featuring Shaw against a Gerrit Cole changeup earlier this season, a pitch against which he’s slugging .512, with a .233 isolated-slugging mark.

He’s crushing the low pitch.

Shaw said that, outside of a slightly more exaggerated leg kick, he’s made no significant mechanical changes. Consider video of Shaw from 2016:

Shaw is trying to hit ground balls, and he is hitting more ground balls, but when he isn’t hitting ground balls, his bat is staying in the zone longer and lifting pitches with more authority, particularly spin and offspeed offerings. Yeah, it’s kinda weird, but it’s working. He’s destroying low pitches. He notes it doesn’t hurt that he’s traded Fenway Park’s right field for Miller Park as a home venue.

Shaw is one of many reasons the Brewers are in first place. He’s a reason the Brewers lead the NL in home runs. And while he’s going against the air-ball revolution, the approach is working, and the balls he is putting in the air are doing plenty of damage.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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This sounds like Freddie Freeman’s BP approach/mindset that Eno wrote about–line drive to short