One could make the argument that Travis Shaw already enjoyed his breakout season. One would intelligently say his break out happened in 2017 when Shaw set career highs in wRC+ and home runs. And really no one can reasonably disagree with that, because it’s true. Shaw broke out the minute he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers, when he proved he was capable of being more than just a platoon player. I believe Shaw is capable of more, though, and I think that 2019 will be his true coming out party, because in 2019, he’s destined to be an All-Star.
Shaw is entering his age-29 season and has produced 3.5 WAR and 3.6 WAR in the last two seasons, respectively. The left-handed slugger crushed 31 home runs during his first year in Milwaukee and followed that up with 32 this past season. His wRC+ stayed consistent as well, from 120 in 2017 to 119 in 2018, both well above league average. According to WAR and wRC+, Shaw produced nearly identical seasons. Overall, he’s been an extremely reliable and a dangerous hitter as a Brewers regular, and yet, there’s plenty of room for improvement, and that starts with a simple turn of luck.
By now, we all know that batting average is a flawed statistic, but I feel must address it here, because in this case, it’s important. In 2017, Shaw’s batting average was a respectable .273. In 2018, his average dropped like Paul Ryan’s approval rating, and he ended the year batting only .241. His low batting average, coupled with a handful of other statistics, is one of the biggest reasons I believe Shaw will take a tremendous step forward during the 2019 campaign.
Let’s take a look at Shaw’s batting average, on-base percentage and batting average on balls in play.
This is fairly telling. Shaw’s batting average on balls in play — which generally shows the amount of good or bad luck a hitter/pitcher has — fell by 70 points. Shaw went from owning the 62nd-highest BABIP (league average was .300) to the 134th-highest BABIP, or seventh-lowest among qualified hitters, depending on how you want to phrase it. That’s eye-opening.
So what happened?
For starters, Shaw fought through a wrist injury last season. Wrist injuries are famous for zapping bat speed and subsequently lowering exit velocities, and though Shaw’s exit velocity didn’t move more than a hair in 2018, his hard-hit rate noticeably dropped a few percentage points. Shaw also hit more pop ups, another sign of poor contact. His wrist injury could be reasonably blamed for both. Shaw additionally sees a lot of shifts, which makes it harder for hits to fall, particularly for pull hitters. Shaw faced the shift more often in 2018 than in 2017, and his batting average on ground balls fell from .246 to .197, but I’m just not a believer that a six percent shift increase is the cause of Shaw’s 50-point drop in grounder BABIP. Plus his ground-ball rate significantly declined this past season, so we can’t say he’s hitting too many grounders in general. Blaming his low BABIP solely on grounders into the shift just isn’t accurate. Don’t believe me? Well, maybe you’ll believe Statcast.
|Travis Shaw 2018|
|wOBA against no shift||.341|
|wOBA against the shift||.396|
The thing that stands out to me the most is Shaw’s still awesome on-base percentage. Despite his batting average suffering a sharp decline, his OBP stayed consistent. And that got me thinking. How many hitters in 2018 managed an 100-point difference between their on-base percentage and batting average on balls in play (minimum 200 plate appearances)? The list must be small, right? Because that’s a huge gap.
The list, is in fact, small. Only six players in 2018 recorded a bigger gap between their OBP and BABIP than Shaw, and some of them make sense. Carlos Santana has always been a high-OBP, low-BABIP hitter, and of course, Mike Trout is going have a significant gap when his OBP is a whopping .460.
But let’s focus back on Shaw. Shaw’s on-base percentage remained high because he discovered a new-found sense of plate discipline. His walk rate jumped over three percentage points, while he cut his strikeouts by over four percent. Even though Shaw made significant strides at the plate in 2018, he was burdened by horrible luck. Historically bad luck, actually. Since 2010, there have only been 10 hitters (14 individual seasons) who have recorded an on-base percentage of .330 or higher with a BABIP of .250 or lower (minimum 300 plate appearances).
While Shaw and Santana are the only players from 2018 on this list, there’s something else that sticks out even more. Of every player above, Shaw is the owner of the second-highest career BABIP, trailing only Evan Longoria. That mean’s Shaw’s .241 batting average was an outrageous outlier. He deserved a much better fate, and even though he was one of Milwaukee’s best hitters, his end-of-the-year stats could’ve — and probably should’ve — been prodigious.
Based on everything I laid out, I believe Shaw is capable of taking a Neil Armstrong-like step forward in 2019. Based on his historically bad luck alone, he should crush pitchers at a high rate. The health of his wrist will be key and he’ll need to do a better job of holding his own against left-handed pitchers, but Shaw will also need the notorious baseball gods back on his side. Just think about it. If Shaw — with his improved eye at the plate — hit .312 on batted balls in 2018 like he did the previous year, he most likely would’ve eclipsed 130 wRC+ and could’ve been a 4-win player. Shaw’s BABIP must hover around .300 in order for him to take the leap that I expect from him. He’s just a few positive bounces away from achieving career-high numbers.
As a treat for making it this far, here’s Shaw’s RW23 projection for the 2019 season. Spoiler: it’s absolutely insane. So insane that while I think Shaw will be excellent, I don’t necessarily believe he’ll be this outstanding. I mean, he’d probably garner MVP votes based on this projection.
Shaw is capable of being an All-Star, and I’m riding or dying with that prediction. Care to join me?