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Travis Shaw’s hidden breakout season

The underlying numbers reveal that Shaw was a better hitter in 2018 than he had ever been before.

MLB: NLCS-Los Angeles Dodgers at Milwaukee Brewers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

While Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain are the names that come to mind when thinking of David Stearns’ best acquisitions, Travis Shaw should rank highly on that list as well. After being acquired for Tyler Thornburg prior to the 2017 season, Shaw proceeded to break out with the Brewers. He slashed .273/.349/.513 for a 120 wRC+ to go along with a career-high 31 home runs.

Shaw followed that up with a strong 2018 season, slashing .241/.345/.480 for a 119 wRC+. He also bested his home run total from the previous season, crushing 32 long balls. He may not have gotten much attention due to great seasons from Cain, Yelich, and Jesus Aguilar, but Shaw largely replicated the success of his breakout campaign and further established himself as a cornerstone of Milwaukee’s lineup.

However, a deeper look reveals that Shaw’s season was much more than that. In fact, there may be an argument that Travis Shaw actually had his true breakout season in 2018.

The idea depends on how one defines a breakout. Shaw’s results wouldn’t indicate a career year, as his surface-level stats weren’t any better than those of his previous campaign. However, he actually took a number of steps forward as a hitter. Here are some of Shaw’s underlying metrics from the past two seasons:

Travis Shaw Season Comparison

Season BB% K% Hard% Barrel% DRC+
Season BB% K% Hard% Barrel% DRC+
2017 9.9% 22.8% 37.1% 7.2% 117
2018 13.3% 18.4% 39.8% 10.3% 132
Shaw’s 2018 campaign produced career-bests in all of these categories.

Shaw made clear improvements in all of these areas. His plate discipline was better than ever. Not only did he cut his strikeout rate by about four percent, but he also displayed more patience. His walk and strikeout rates were both the best of his career.

In addition to improving his plate discipline, Shaw continued to hit baseballs hard. He set new career-highs in hard contact rate and barrel percentage. For reference, a “barreled” baseball is any batted ball hit with an exit velocity of 98 miles per hour or greater that falls within a certain launch angle range. That range starts at a launch angle between 25 and 31 degrees, but it expands if the exit velocity is higher. Hitters want to barrel up the baseball, and this stat quantifies how frequently they’re doing just that. In 2018, Shaw was squaring up baseballs more than ever before.

Unfortunately, Shaw’s improvements failed to translate into his surface-level numbers. That’s largely due to a career-low .242 BABIP that was well below his .312 mark from the previous season. Despite hitting the ball hard at more than ever in 2018, Shaw had significantly fewer balls drop for hits.

Some of this can be explained by the fact that Shaw hit more fly balls in 2018. Fly balls produce a significantly lower BABIP than line drives or ground balls, and Shaw did hit the ball in the air 44.5% of the time. However, up until the 2018 season, Shaw’s career fly ball rate was 41.2%, and he still had a .305 BABIP. Furthermore, the league-wide BABIP on fly balls in 2018 was .117, while Shaw’s was .076, about 40 points lower.

Some might try to explain Shaw’s low BABIP by assuming that he was a victim of the shift and couldn’t adjust accordingly. It’s true that Shaw was shifted more frequently; after being shifted 17.5% of the time in 2017, teams deployed the shift against him 23.1% of the time in 2018. However, Shaw was excellent against the shift, posting a .396 wOBA. There’s no good reason for Shaw’s BABIP plummeting as low as it did, so it’s reasonable to assume that his batted ball luck next season will be closer to its previous career averages.

We’ve had access to this information all season. However, thanks to a new stat, we have another tool to explain how strong Shaw’s 2018 campaign really was. DRC+ is a new offensive metric that was introduced by Baseball Prospectus at the beginning of December. Here’s a brief rundown:

DRC+ stands for Deserved Runs Created Plus. Rather than judging a hitter solely on his results, this new stat uses expected outcomes in an effort to give a hitter proper credit for what he did at the plate. DRC+ weighs walks and strikeouts more heavily than other outcomes because they’re a better representation of a player’s skill. The stat also takes into account a myriad of contextual factors for each plate appearance, such as the ballpark the hitter was playing in and the quality of the pitcher he was facing. Lastly, it’s adjusted to the rest of the league. As is the case with other adjusted stats, a DRC+ of 100 is considered average. Anything higher is above average, and anything lower is below average. If you’re still a little confused or want more information, you can read BP’s introductory article for DRC+.

DRC+ loved Shaw’s 2018 season. It took notice of his improved strikeout and walk rates, and it also accounted for his poor batted ball luck. Shaw posted a 117 DRC+ in his 2017 season, but a 132 DRC+ in 2018. That’s a noticeable jump, and it’s easily the best mark of Shaw’s career. DRC+ rates Shaw as the Brewers’ third-best hitter in 2018, behind Christian Yelich (145 DRC+) and Jesus Aguilar (134). He’s ahead of names like Lorenzo Cain (116) and Mike Moustakas (110). Shaw already had a strong year, but DRC+ paints an even rosier—and more accurate—picture of his season.

Shaw may not have had a full-on breakout season, as his results didn’t take any sort of leap forward. However, there’s no denying that he was a better hitter than ever before. You could classify it as a “hidden breakout.” If his batted ball luck improves, the 28-year-old could be in line for a big 2019 season. It’s highly likely that we have not yet seen the best of Travis Shaw.

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, and Baseball Prospectus