What Will Travis Shaw’s Past Lead To?

Travis Shaw is a unique case. Quite often, players are categorized or assessed based on the height of the floor and ceiling of their performance. Travis Shaw is no exception, however, he has brought new meaning to those classifications, spending his short career embodying the essence of both floor and ceiling.

In his rookie season, he offered productive results, a .348 wOBA, .217 ISO, .813 OPS with a 118 wRC+. The then 25-year-old looked like a breakout star for the Red Sox. After that solid debut in 2015, things got complicated for Shaw.

In his second season his wRC+ plummeted to 88 and with it came his wOBA (.310), ISO (.179) and OPS (.726). What changed? He wasn’t pitched all that differently, seeing a similar number of pitches in the strikezone and no pitch was thrown much more than 2-3% more or less. His batted ball profile offers some hidden insight. While he sprayed balls (directionally) nearly identically in both seasons, maintained his BABIP and kept both his exit velocity and launch angle consistent the one major deviation was his HR/FB rate.

In 2016, Shaw saw a massive decline in HR/FB rate, going from a pedestrian 17.8% to a near league-worst 10.3%. Considering there was a spike in home runs in 2016, the juiced ball can be ruled out, as can a change in ballpark or distribution of home and road games. What did change was how he hit the ball.

It was the balls that Travis got under that led to the dramatic change. After sitting at 28.1% in 2015 (78th, minimum 200 PAs), he really separated himself in 2016 when he jumped 40 spots, to rank 38th, bottoming the ball 31.1% of the time. While there were successful players among the 37 outranking him, few saw success that season. Shaw’s habit to clip the bottom of the ball led to more fly balls that didn’t have any drive behind them, fly balls that weren’t going anywhere.

Now two seasons into his career, Shaw had the opportunity to demonstrate who he truly was. When Boston sent him to Milwaukee before the 2017 season, he did just that. In his next two seasons, Travis Shaw turned himself into a dangerous, power-hitting third baseman. Hammering 63 home runs in those seasons he collected 7.1 WAR. Amid this success even his plate discipline improved, boosting his BB% by over 3% – directly deducted from his K%. In 2017 he bottomed balls much less, 26.5% of the time – the lowest rate of his career. He did touch 31% again in 2018, however, an improved 10.3% barrel rate indicates he likely matched up a few more of those otherwise weak fly balls with some exit velocity, landing them deep into the outfield if not over the fence.

Travis Shaw photo
Cred. Aaron Gash/Associated Press

After posting wRC+s of at least 118 in three of his first four seasons, Shaw looked like a proven bat in the middle of a strong Brewers lineup. Then 2019 happened. In a season that saw Travis limp through a wrist injury and two demotions to AAA, the third baseman slashed a disgusting .157/.281/.270. That computes to a -0.8 WAR, 14th worst in the league.

While he did retain his impressive 13.3% walk rate, his inflated strikeout rate of 33% was a needless indicator of the sheerly awful season he had in 2019. What went wrong here is a little more transparent. If not for the aforementioned results, spiking your launch angle by 7.8 degrees in a single off-season would be a massive accomplishment. Among those with 100 batted ball events, no one was able to match his 2019 launch angle of 24.4. It’s only been beaten once in the StatCast era – in 2016 by Ryan Schimpf.

There’s no question Shaw had a rough 2019. But what’s interesting is despite the massive chasm between it and his previous low, all his struggles have been plagued with the same issue. This is the first season in which Shaw has been undoubtedly unproductive, so a bounce-back season doesn’t require a return to his 2017 high. But it does require a return to his original approach.

Shaw must lower his launch angle. He has to focus on ensuring his contact produces balls that will land for hits. His xwOBA on contact of .344 in 2019 won’t cut it. Even his previous low, in 2018, of .375 will suffice to ensure more favourable outcomes. While working to connect with more line drives (not fly balls) will be a massive part of a resurgence, it won’t be the only critical step.

As previously discussed, bottoming the ball has been a chronic issue for Shaw. Getting under pitches was a big part of that launch angle spike, doing so 42.6% of the time was the most among hitters with at least 200 plate appearances in 2019. Familiarly, that number has only ever been conquered once in the StatCast era, by Ryan Schimpf in 2016.

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Cred. Sam Navarro/USA Today

Resolving his launch angle and the frequency he bottoms balls will force a strong jump in barrel rate. Which, coming from 7.1% in 2019, impressive context considered, could mean big things. Will he put it together? It’s likely. He’s already overcome the biggest roadblock – recognizing and identifying the problem.

Much of 2019 came from intentional changes made to his approach engineered to generate more launch angle. “It didn’t work out obviously, it kinda backfired on me,” Shaw spoke of the changes. Now with the Toronto Blue Jays, he’s ready to return to his original approach, and perhaps performance. Naturally, players experience changes in their ability to produce at the major league level, but after the success Shaw had, it’s hard to imagine his most recent campaign being at all representative of his talent.

A bounce-back season for Travis Shaw is relevant in many ways: fantasy baseball, his career trajectory and a Blue Jays team that isn’t far from returning to the Holy Land. But perhaps it is most valuable as a lesson. The case highlights the reality of launch angle: It’s not a standalone metric. It is meaningless, if not detrimental, when not paired with an appropriate exit velocity. In a day when launch angle is a hot commodity, Travis Shaw has learned, the hard way, that too much of a good thing is just that, too much.

All data sourced from fangraphs.com, baseball-reference.com and baseballsavant.mlb.com.