Defending the NL Central in 2019: Travis Shaw

The Milwaukee Brewers enter 2019 as tentative favorites in a vastly-improved NL Central. They’ll need their lineup top-down to perform all season. Here’s a look at some players who could play key roles in 2019. Unlike real life, Orlando Arcia led off last week. Today: Travis Shaw.

Have fun trying to make sense of Travis Shaw‘s 2018 batting splits.

Power hitters should be able to hammer fastballs. Shaw’s OPS was only .535 against power pitchers.

Power hitters can have trouble with offspeed stuff. Shaw’s OPS against finesse pitchers was .979.

Power hitters pull the ball in the air. Shaw’s BAbip on fly balls was .054 and he hit marginally better on balls in play to the opposite field than to right (.255, .252, respectively.)

I might suggest that Travis Shaw is not a power hitter, at least, not in the conventional sense; but rather, a hitter with power. As such, I’m convinced there exists dissonance between the slugging third baseman Shaw has been made out be to and seems to believe he is, and the professional hitter Shaw actually is.

Like Arcia, the tell is in the line drives: Shaw slashed .616/.602/.988 for a whopping 1.590 OPS across 88 plate appearances. Further, despite exceeding 100 strikeouts in each of his three Major League seasons, Shaw isn’t a free-swinger. He’s aggressive against offspeed pitches but actually makes contact; in fact, according to Brooks, he is league average or better for swings-and-misses against any pitch type. Per Statcast, Shaw fares better with pitches low in the zone, but has a tendency to chase high like a slugger.

What if Milwaukee reinvented Shaw; not so much as a home run threat, but as a doubles machine? Perhaps a 5 / 6 hitter with the opportunity to drive in second wave runs with 20-25 HR and 35-40 2B? The Brewers already have home run threats in Jesus Aguilar, Christian Yelich, Ryan Braun. And sure, if some dingers are good, more are better. But is Shaw sacrificing his natural skillset by muscling up pitches into the shift? Moreover, could Shaw benefit himself by being more judicious with his approach? If he adjusts to put the ball more in play–as he did more (and beautifully) in October–opposing pitchers will have no choice but to start throwing him more junk (which drives up pitch counts and plays well to his ability to get on base via walk) or force them to groove fastballs to try blowing him away in his plus-hitting zones.

And we haven’t even discussed the LH-RH splits, or Shaw’s brutal numbers down the stretch with men on base, or his general struggles when falling behind in the count. He’s not Jim Thome or Eddie Mathews, both of whom were well on their way to Hall of Fame careers by their age-28 seasons (and, unlike Shaw, were already well-established veterans at that point.) These numbers look like a guy who has been told his whole career that he should be a power lefty hitter when he really should be following Aguilar’s example of big dudes who can just plain rake and let the power numbers come to them.

So, what happened to Shaw in 2018? Well, there was the wrist injury, as noted by First Out at Third Monday. Wrist injuries linger, and that appears to be the case here in the early going. Then there were the Mike Moustakas and Jonathan Schoop trades that essentially made Shaw a platoon and utility player and diminished his value–statistically and otherwise–until Schoop played his way out of the everyday lineup.

There’s also the burden of expectation: after Shaw’s surfacing 2017, wherein he hit 31 HR at a .273 clip and an .862 OPS, and then the, injury-induced or otherwise, early-season struggles (going from an admittedly-unsustainable .389 at the beginning of April to a uncomfortably close to his season-concluding average at .243 with only five HR to show for it), there’s a strong probablity Shaw was pressing in the clean-up spot, which, in my mind, further supports the idea that Shaw is a contact hitter in a power hitter’s body.

When Shaw plays every day, he’s effective. When he’s bounced around the field, he’s forced to think too much and loses potency (to wit, his splits when he played second against playing at third are not unnotable.) For this reason, and with all apologies to Moose, whom I genuinely love as a ballplayer and person, Shaw shouldn’t be forced to worry about anything other than playing third base for the Brewers this summer and maintaining those adjustments that made him a force at the plate in the NLDS.

If Travis Shaw can find the magic that created success in 2017 and avoid the health struggles that hampered his ’18, Craig Counsell has a key component to an offense that needs to keep the lineup moving and force opposing teams to wear down their pitchers. If Shaw doesn’t come out strong, he may force David Stearns to make a move as he did with the shortstop position last year and cost himself a healthy raise when he enters his second arbitration period after this season. He has every reason to approach 2019–and subsequent arbitration years–as contract years.

The Brewers need Travis Shaw. It also may be that Travis Shaw needs the Brewers.

Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.

[Editor’s note: Due to a misreading of Shaw’s major league service on the writer’s part, Shaw is eligible for arbitration right now, and not after 2019 as the piece originally stated. The final paragraph has been edited to reflect that. We regret the error.]

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