Entering last offseason, third base looked like a clear position of need for the Milwaukee Brewers. Internal options were limited with Jonathan Villar shifting to second base and the preference to keep Hernan Perez in a utility role, so it seemed likely that GM David Stearns would make a low-cost acquisition to tide the position over during another rebuilding season in 2017.
That addition came in the form of Travis Shaw, a 27 year old who had just completed his first full major league season. Shaw came via Boston, a part of the Tyler Thornburg deal that also returned three promising prospects. A former 9th-round pick, Shaw came up as a first baseman in the minors and was never considered much of a top prospect before debuting in 2015. He spent 65 games in the big leagues that year, and he parlayed an .813 OPS and 13 home runs into the starting third base job the following spring. The left-handed hitting Shaw eventually began platooning at the hot corner when Boston brought in Aaron Hill midseason (from the Brewers, coincidentally) and his production suffered. He wound up finishing the year with a below-average .726 OPS and 16 home runs in 145 games.
Shaw spoke on many occasions this year how the lack of everyday playing time in Boston hampered his productivity, and the Brewers were willing to give him a chance to show what he could due as a true starter. Craig Counsell has become known for making numerous changes in his lineup from game to game, but there was one constant throughout the bulk of the 2017 season - Travis Shaw penciled in batting cleanup and playing third base. Counsell, Stearns, and the Milwaukee Brewers were greatly rewarded for their faith in Shaw’s abilities.
Shaw appeared in 144 contests for the Milwaukee Nine in 2017, getting 142 starts at the hot corner. He finished 2nd on the club with 606 plate appearances and 84 runs scored, and lead Milwaukee with 147 hits, 34 doubles, and tied for first by launching 31 home runs. Not known for his speed, Travis managed to quietly swipe 10 bases without being caught, as well. Shaw batted .273/.349/.513 this year, which translated to a 122 OPS+ and 119 wRC+. He successfully shed the stigma of platoon hitter by logging a respectable .250/.312/.464 slash against same-handed hurlers, clubbing 5 dingers in 155 plate appearances.
As the #4 hitter in Counsell’s lineup, Shaw was a true “run producer” in every sense of the phrase. He tallied 101 RBI, the 9th-most in the National League and the first 100+ RBI season by a Brewer since 2012. The team as a whole was much-maligned for their struggles “in the clutch” in 2017, but Shaw made himself immune from those complaints - he batted .300 with a 142 wRC+ in”high-leverage” situations in 2017, along with a .295 average and 149 wRC+ with runners in scoring position. He provided arguably the most memorable moment of the 2017 season in late September:
For a player who came up primarily as a first baseman until 2015, Shaw has proven surprisingly adept at fielding his position at the hot corner. He graded out +3 Defensive Runs Saved and +1.2 Fielding Runs Above Average in over 1,200 innings at third base in 2017, showcasing a strong arm and better-than-expected range. Fielding Errors are no longer seen as a very effective way to evaluate a player’s defensive prowess, but it’s still worth noting that only two qualified third baseman committed fewer errors than Shaw’s 9 this season. He went over two months without committing one at one point during the summer.
When we put all of those aspects into the all-encompassing context of wins above replacement, Shaw comes out as one of the top-30 players in the National League this season. He accrued 3.4 fWAR, 4.0 bWAR, and 4.3 WARP, which works out to an average of 3.90 wins above replacement player between the three outlets. Making Shaw’s feats this season even more impressive was the fact that he accomplished it all in the face of personal tragedy and adversity.
Shaw and his wife welcomed their first child to the world in June, a daughter named Ryann. She was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a defect that has already required multiple open-heart surgeries. When the team was playing at home in Milwaukee, if he wasn’t at the ballpark Shaw was spending his time at Children’s Hospital. After four months in the hospital, Shaw and his wife Lindy were finally able to bring Ryann home for the first time last week.
Shaw was overwhelmingly voted as the Most Valuable Brewer by the BCB community in 2017. Given his outstanding performance and four additional seasons of club control, Travis Shaw looks like he’ll be an integral part of the Milwaukee Brewers for the foreseeable future.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Prospectus