If there was any player who seemed like a sure thing heading into the 2019 season, it was Travis Shaw. The third baseman belted 31 home runs to go along with an .862 OPS and a 120 wRC+ in his debut season in Milwaukee, and he followed that up with an equally productive campaign that featured 32 dingers, an .825 OPS, and a 119 wRC+. FanGraphs’ flavor of WAR valued him at 3.5 and 3.6 Wins Above Replacement in those two seasons, respectively.
However, baseball has a way of showing us that even the seemingly sure things aren’t actually that certain. We’re over a full month into the new season, and Shaw has slogged to a putrid .561 OPS and 48 wRC+. His fWAR sits at -0.6, a steep drop from the level he was on in each of the past two seasons. While another struggling slugger, Jesus Aguilar, has gotten it going over the past week-plus, Shaw remains mired in a mighty slump.
A peek at Shaw’s batted ball numbers does reveal some differences from last season. On the bright side, he has actually lowered his ground ball rate to 32.9%, a five-percent drop from last season. His .234 BABIP is highly likely to improve as the season progresses. However, Shaw’s hard contact rate has dropped by three percent, and his barrel rate has also dropped to 7.2% after posting a career-best 10.3% in that category last season. Also notable is that his average launch angle has jumped to 21.5 degrees. Often times, an increase in launch angle is seen in a positive light (for example, Christian Yelich has increased his launch angle, and it has produced elite results). In Shaw’s case, however, it’s a bad thing. The higher launch angle doesn’t mean he’s hitting more fly balls, it means he’s hitting more weak pop-ups. His infield fly ball rate has increased to a career-high 13.2%. Shaw’s low BABIP indicates that there has been at least a small amount of bad luck involved in his slump, but the Statcast metrics don’t exactly paint a picture of someone who has had poor fortune.
Fewer barreled baseballs hasn’t been Shaw’s only problem. In fact, it looks like more of a minor issue when compared to the fact that his plate discipline has seemingly fallen off a cliff.
Shaw is striking out more than he ever has before, and his walk rate has decreased. This is especially discouraging after he made great strides with his strikeout and walk rates last season. It may be easy to assume that Shaw must be chasing more pitches out of the strike zone. However, that’s not the case; his chase rate last season was 25%, and this year it’s 26%. The real issue is even more alarming—he’s swinging right through hittable pitches at a shockingly high rate. His swing and miss rate on pitches in the strike zone has doubled, and his contact rate inside the strike zone has collapsed from 87.9% last season to 70.1% this year.
One factor in Shaw swinging and missing more than ever before is that he’s being pitched in a way he’s never been pitched before. Observe where opposing pitchers frequently pitched to Shaw in 2017 and 2018:
The majority of the pitches Shaw has seen have been belt-high or lower. This season, that hasn’t been the case.
Shaw is still seeing a fair amount of fastballs down in the zone, but pitchers are now attacking him up in the zone more than ever before. This adjustment makes sense considering Shaw does much of his damage on pitches low in the zone. On fastballs up in the zone, however, Shaw has had more trouble connecting.
Shaw’s whiff rate on swings jumps by anywhere from 10 to 20 percent on fastballs up in the strike zone. This isn’t exactly out of the ordinary. Mid-90s fastballs are much harder to hit when they’re up in the zone, and many pitchers in today’s game attack the top of the zone regularly for this very reason.
The change in approach from opposing pitchers partially explains Shaw’s struggles, but he’s also missing pitches he used to crush. Shaw is still missing more pitches at the top of the zone than he is anywhere else, but his whiffs per swing are up across the entire strike zone.
Another cause for Shaw’s struggles is that he’s simply started to press as this rough stretch drags on. At the end of April, his underlying numbers looked poor, but not horrible. Much of the damage to his season-long numbers have come during his horrific 34 plate appearances since the calendar turned to May: a 17.1% hard contact rate, a 32.6% whiff rate on pitches in the strike zone, and a whopping 34-degree average launch angle with an alarming 21.4% infield fly ball rate.
Clearly, the first thing the Brewers need to do is let Shaw sit out a few games and hit the reset button before things get any worse. Fortunately, they are in a position to do just that. Shaw is all but guaranteed to sit out against the three left-handed starters the Cubs have penciled in for this weekend’s showdown. Perhaps an extended break will allow him to recollect himself and get his bat going, as it did for Jesus Aguilar.
Another way to address Shaw’s struggles is to strictly platoon him. As consistently good as Shaw has been the past two seasons, he’s demonstrated a glaring weakness against southpaws. He has a .696 OPS against left-handed pitching over the past two seasons, including a .599 OPS last year. This season, Shaw has just three singles against lefties with a .222 OPS and a ghastly 13.6% hard contact rate. His overall production against right-handers has been poor as well (.664 OPS), but it’s much better than his numbers against same-sided pitching. His hard contact rate against righties is 42.6%, slightly higher than it was last season. Limiting Shaw’s exposure to lefties would put him in a better position to succeed.
As Shaw continues to struggle, something that needs to be stressed is that giving up on him now would be an incredibly stupid decision. This is a player who blasted 63 long balls with a 119 wRC+ over nearly 1200 plate appearances across two seasons. He was worth 7.1 fWAR over that stretch. A month-and-a-half of poor production does not override that. He’s still just 29 years of age, so it’s not as if he’s well past his prime. If he can return to his typical form, he makes this Brewers lineup even deeper than it already is.
Yes, Shaw is struggling mightily at the moment, and yes, Keston Hiura is tearing it up in San Antonio. That doesn’t mean it’s time to change anything. While Shaw’s leash cannot last forever, it’s only the second week of May. Fans and the front office need to have patience with someone who has been one of their more consistently productive players over the past two seasons. Identifying the problem is the first step, and hitting coach Andy Haines has almost certainly made note of Shaw’s swing-and-miss troubles and how pitchers have adjusted to him. Now it’s time for Shaw to put in the work and make adjustments, and the Brewers need to make sure they’re putting him in the best position to succeed. If there’s anyone who deserves a chance to work through his struggles, it’s Travis Shaw.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, and Brooks Baseball and are updated as of May 9.