Travis Shaw was not supposed to be this good. While he was never a non-prospect or an organizational guy, he was never a prospect of note coming up through the minors. The best you could say about him is that he was a top-ten first base prospect, which is not as impressive at it might sound. The minors are full of future first baseman who have yet to be moved down the defensive spectrum.
Shaw made his major league debut in 2015 as a useful platoon partner for Mike Napoli. He became the full-time first baseman once Napoli got traded to the Texas Rangers. He performed well, exceeding expectations that he might have set during his time in Pawtucket. Over the equivalent of a full season in Triple-A, he hit .256/.319/.395, which was an average level of offense for that level. During his 2015 major league season, he hit .270/.327/.487. He did not get on base a lot, but he did hit for a lot of power. Being worth 1.1 WAR over 65 games was certainly a strong debut season.
Unfortunately, the regression monster came for Shaw in 2016. He was with the major league team the entire season and played 145 games, though surprisingly about two-thirds of those games came at third base. Pablo Sandoval missed just about the entire season due to surgery on his left shoulder. This was in the midst of the team’s long drought at third base that I wrote about last year. Shaw was a first base only prospect, but that position was tied up by Hanley Ramírez, who proved to be unplayable in left field the year before. He did play 104 games at third base in the minors, so it was not like the position was completely new to him.
The advanced defensive metrics were shockingly good to him that season. He only had a 0.6 UZR, but he was worth 10 runs by DRS and FRAA! I watched him a lot that season, and while I really do not believe he was close to 10-runs good at third base, he was a lot better than I thought he would be.
It was a good thing Shaw flashed some leather that season, because he hit only .242/.306/.421. A below average line from a corner infielder does not cut it unless you really believe that Shaw is a true-talent 10-run third baseman. To give that some perspective, Josh Donaldson was that good in his defensive prime. Even the most optimistic observer would not have have rated Shaw’s defense that strongly. Moving Shaw back to first base was not an option either because Hanley had the position locked down, hitting .286/.361/.505 with 30 HR in 2016.
With Sandoval expected to return and top prospect Rafael Devers expected to make his major league debut later in 2017, the Red Sox made the logical decision to trade away Shaw. They traded him to Milwaukee along with a couple other players in exchange for Tyler Thornburg. Thornburg had an excellent 2016 season, turning in a 2.55 RA9 while striking out over a third of hitters faced.
However, that season was a bit of an outlier compared to his track record. It would be fair to call it a light return, but the Red Sox did not have much leverage. They had a log jam at first and third base, and Shaw was coming off a down year offensively. Oddly enough, the Red Sox signed Mitch Moreland to a one-year deal only two days after trading away Shaw, and Moreland can’t play third at all because he is a lefty.
Well, you know what happened with Shaw since landing with the Brewrers. He has hit 264/.346/.504 with 45 HR in almost a year and a half with the team. When he had a .390 wOBA at last year’s All-Star break, I thought that there was no way that could continue. I was only partially right. He still has a robust .358 wOBA.
As Travis Sawchik wrote over at FanGraphs last year, Shaw is not one of the many adopters of the flyball revolution. In fact, as Sawchik focused on, he purposely tries to hit the ball on the ground. Last year, his 43.5 GB% was higher than his 37.6 FB%. Strangely, it worked well for him. The only other major change in his hitting profile was a 20.5 percent HR/FB ratio. That has regressed to his career rate this year.
Shaw’s 120 wRC+ this year is about equal to last year’s wRC+, but there have been some changes to his profile. He is walking about a third more than he has in the past, which is good because he is hitting only .244. However, that low batting average is deflated by a .254 BABIP. Moreover, his 17.7 K% is quite good, and it is about a 25 percent improvement over last year. Shaw should be seeing some positive regression to the mean soon.
The good news is that the power is still there, even though he has been generating more soft contact this year. Whether consciously or not, Shaw has increased his launch angles since last year. He is up to 16.8 degrees from 14.5 degrees the year before. He far outperformed his .336 xwOBA last year, but now he has a .362 xwOBA that is slightly higher than his actual wOBA.
Even though the trade made all the sense in the world for the Red Sox, it has not worked out for them so far. Since the trade, their third basemen have combined to hit .242/.296/.383, per FanGraphs. Devers had a solid debut last year hitting .284/.338/.482, but he has struggled in 2018, hitting just .236/.284/.417. He has also played poor defense, though I believe he has made significant improvements lately. Devers is only 21 years-old, so of course he has plenty of times to figure things out. Thankfully, the Red Sox offense is more than strong enough to withstand a struggling third baseman.
As for Thornburg, he has yet to actually play for the Red Sox. He missed all of last year due to surgery to correct thoracic outlet syndrome. He is currently rehabbing in Pawtucket, so hopefully he will make his Red Sox debut soon, barring any setbacks. At least Moreland, whom the team would not have acquired had they kept Shaw, has been performing out of his mind this year, hitting a whopping .300/.371/.560. I saw him hit a home run to dead center not long before writing that.
GM David Stearns has done an excellent job constructing this fun, competitive Brewers team. Perhaps his shrewdest move was acquiring Travis Shaw. He will not hit free agency until after 2021, and all he cost was a reliever whom the team would not need even if he were healthy because the bullpen has been ridiculously good. Yes, Lorenzo Cain has been great — in fact he is leading NL position players with 4 WAR — but he is 32 years-old and is in year one of a five-year, $80 million deal.
It is worth noting that Jesús Aguilar could turn out to be an even shrewder acquisition than Shaw. He was basically free. He was claimed off waivers from Cleveland in January 2017. He hit well last year with a line of .265/.331/.505 and a lot of strikeouts. This year he has improved his contact rate and has hit .300/.360/.600 with 16 HR. His 151 wRC+ ranks fifth in the NL among players with at least 220 PA. If Aguilar does turn out to be a better story than Shaw, I am sure no Brewers fan is going to complain.
The Red Sox suffered a lot of bad luck with this trade. The logic behind their rationale was sound, but there was no predicting Shaw’s breakout or the struggles of Devers. That does not mean that Stearns does not deserve a lot of credit, even if Shaw surpassed even his own expectations.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.