Travis Shaw Could Be a Smart Flier for Milwaukee

Earlier this week, Travis Shaw signed a non-guaranteed deal with the Brewers that will pay him $1.5 million if he makes the big league roster, with another $1.5 million available in incentives. (Our Jay Jaffe has the particulars in a piece from Thursday on Milwaukee signing him and Brett Anderson.) There’s also an opt-out date in mid-March, one he’ll presumably exercise if he isn’t tracking to earn a spot on the Opening Day roster. He’ll have to beat out some combination of Luis Urías and Daniel Vogelbach for at-bats, and while that may not sound likely, I think he’s a reasonable bounce-back candidate.

I’ve long been fascinated by Shaw’s career path and the way his production has bounced around with his launch angle. One notable aspect of the launch angle revolution is how frequently swing adjustments seem to pay off. Perhaps we can attribute some of that to a juicy baseball; we’ll see how well all the new flyball hitters hold up with a deader pill this year. Most players who steepened their launch angle, though, have benefited from doing so — but not everyone.

Logically, we can intuit that too steep of a launch angle leads to popups, flyouts, and more swings and misses. Anything above a 45-degree launch angle, for instance, is almost always an out (unless you’re a freak like Pete Alonso). And while nobody has an average launch angle anywhere near 45 degrees, it makes sense that someone with a comparatively high figure may be reaching for too much of a good thing.

That brings us back to Shaw. After posting consecutive 3.5-WAR seasons for the Brewers in 2017 and ’18, he slumped horribly the following year. In baseball’s most homerific season to date, Shaw went from 32 round-trippers to seven. Unsurprisingly, he lost his job, got demoted to Triple-A twice, and was non-tendered after the season. A quick look at this contact profile highlights the problem:

What Goes Up…
Year Launch Angle Contact Rate wRC+
2016 16.1 77.6% 88
2017 14.9 80.1% 119
2018 16.9 81.4% 120
2019 24.9 70.8% 48
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

While Shaw’s 24.9-degree launch angle was the second highest in the league, the figure itself isn’t inherently problematic: Rhys Hoskins and Mike Trout are in this orbit, and Shaw’s launch angle prior to 2019 was much higher than league average as well. But his gruesome 2019 results suggested that such a high launch angle was problematic for him. Notably, the beer-league softball hack left him unable to defend the upper part of the strike zone.

For comparison, here’s what his whiff rate by zone looked like in 2018:

That’s not a good trajectory. On top of that, Shaw completely lost his ability to handle fastballs, and opponents mercilessly exploited those twin vulnerabilities.

Still, Shaw’s earlier numbers in Milwaukee were too good to ignore entirely, and he landed a one-year deal with the Blue Jays for 2020. He rebounded a bit in Buffalo, notching a 92 wRC+ and batting .239/.306/.411 in 180 plate appearances, though he settled into something of a platoon role by year’s end. With younger and better options available, Toronto opted not to bring him back for 2021, and Shaw had to settle for a non-guaranteed offer from Milwaukee.

Before I make the case that Shaw may have something left in the tank, let’s review the obvious caveats. He was dreadful in 2019 and a below-average hitter again last season. When production disappears, particularly for non-injury reasons, it’s hard to recover. The track record of players who saw their numbers tank like that is about as bad as you’d expect. There are a few exceptions, and our delightfully monikered reader grandbranyon highlighted a few in the comments section here, but such successes are few and far between. And on top of that, Shaw is now on the wrong side of 30.

It’s also not like Shaw fixed all of the underlying problems in his contact portfolio. Perhaps most concerning, pitchers again ate him alive with fastballs: He whiffed 17% of the time he saw a four-seamer (about double his rate from 2017 and ’18) and hit only one homer.

It’s the performance against heaters that most concerns me. Like most hitters, he did his best work against fastballs in 2017 and ’18, and if he can’t approximate that form going forward, his days in the big leagues are probably numbered. He’s also seeing far fewer sinkers now than he used to — about 13.5% over the last two years, down from 18.5% in the two years prior — which is bad news for a low-ball hitter like he is.

That’s a lot of reasons to ignore a small signing in mid-February. Rationally, my hopes for Shaw shouldn’t be high. ZiPS projects a below-average wRC+ for him again (though interestingly, it does peg him for 1.8 WAR on account of his defense), and even a platoon role is probably a better-than-expected outcome here.

And yet I’m not quite convinced that he’s cooked. For starters, a few of his core skills seem intact. His exit velocities have actually improved the last two years and are solidly above league average. When he makes contact, he does damage, with a 44% hard-hit rate, per StatCast, which is about 10% better than league average. He also hasn’t seen much fluctuation in his strike zone discipline metrics over the years. If anything, he’s become better at laying off pitches out of the zone recently.

Additionally, I think the launch angle adjustment he made last year is significant. His average launch angle dropped from 24.9 degrees in 2019 to 19.8 degrees last season, much closer to the 16.9-degree mark he ran in ’18. I’m not trying to imply a direct link between his production and a launch angle in line with his career norms, but the batted ball and strike zone data suggests a correlation. To succeed, Shaw needs to cover the top part of the zone better than he has these last two years, and it’s hard to imagine him doing so with a launch angle in the 20s. The movement in the right direction is encouraging.

And while Shaw’s numbers weren’t anything special in 2020, they probably should have better than they were. As Jack Stern at Brew Crew Ball observed, he had one of the largest gaps between his homer total and his xHR figure, as estimated by StatCast. If you look at his spray chart overlaid against a generic field, you can see that Shaw didn’t quite get his money’s worth:

He really did come agonizingly close a few times:

I mean come on:

Who knew you could hit a ball 409 feet in Yankee Stadium without homering?

To wrap this up: Shaw is a 30-year-old third baseman with a dash of defensive versatility. Just two years ago, he was coming off of consecutive good seasons. He’s been mostly bad since, but there are compelling reasons to think that 2019 was an aberration and that his power and strike zone judgement are still intact.

The median outcome here probably isn’t anything special, but it doesn’t have to be. Shaw costs the Brewers nothing, unless he costs them $1.5 million, which he’ll only do if he produces. It’s not hard to imagine him settling into a platoon role (110 wRC+ against righties in a tiny sample last year) and scraping out a positive WAR figure. There are worse punts to take.

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1 year ago

Toronto and Milwaukee love trading players that always have one ‘issue’ fix to be an elite player. Shaw just traded his one fix for another necessary fix. Maybe he just isn’t more than a replacement player…