A year ago at this time, it looked like the Milwaukee Brewers had found their long-term solution at third base. At least, that’s what Travis Shaw and his agent were hoping. Shaw memorably arrived in December 2016 as part of one of David Stearns’ most lopsided trades, coming over from Boston in the Tyler Thornburg deal. He quickly settled in as the cleanup hitter for Craig Counsell’s squad and launched 63 home runs with a 120 OPS+ during the 2017-18 seasons, accumulating 7.0 bWAR during that period while earning a Gold Glove nomination for his defensive work at the hot corner.
Shaw was vocal about his willingness to discuss a contract extension with the Brewers last spring, but talks between the two sides never advanced. Hindsight being 20/20, that wound up being for the best from the team’s point of view after The Mayor of Ding Dong City saw his production crater in an unexpected and dramatic fashion during the 2019 season.
Shaw has since discussed some mechanical adjustments that went awry, but no one could have foreseen the extent to which Travis struggled last season. He owned a .548 OPS when he went down with a wrist injury in May, was given another crack at finding his swing when he came back healthy and hit .167 during the month of June before finally being relegated to either the bench or the minor leagues for most of the rest of the season. After he struck out in a third of his 270 plate appearances and registered -1.2 bWAR and -0.8 fWAR, the Brewers non-tendered Shaw. He signed with the Blue Jays this offseason as a bounceback candidate.
Mike Moustakas moved over from second base and held down the fort well enough at third base before he too departed via free agency, jumping ship to division rival Cincinnati for a four-year contract. While some around the Cream City dared to dream of luring Josh Donaldson, in the end Slingin’ Stearns went diving in the bargain bin and came out with a pair of veterans — one an old friend, and one a familiar foe.
The man who is slated to see the majority of the action at the hot corner is Eric Sogard, who spent time with the team in 2017-18. He was released in 2018 after posting a mere .134/241/.165 slash line in 55 games, but has since partially attributed those struggles to off the field issues. He enjoyed a career-best season last year, split between Toronto and Tampa Bay. All together, Sogard slashed .290/.353/.457 for a 115 wRC+ while clubbing 13 home runs. He continued to display his trademark bat control, walking at an 8.6% clip while only whiffing 14.3% of the time. He was valued at 2.6 wins above replacement per both Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs, by far the highest single-season total of his career.
But there are some questions about how much of Sogard’s career-year at age-33 is sustainable, and how much can be attributed to the juiced baseball that was in play in 2019. Sogard owns a pedestrian 82 wRC+ and .280 BABIP across parts of nine MLB seasons, and his first half with Toronto (122 wRC+, .326 BABIP) looks like a possible outlier when compared to his second half with the Rays (94 wRC+, .289 BABIP). Sogard had hit 11 home runs in his career before last season and then more than doubled that, and Statcast does not buy into his newfound “power” stroke. Among the 478 hitters with at least 50 batted ball events last season, Sogard ranked 440th in average home run distance at 378 feet. His 1.6% barrel rate per plate appearance was 425th. Sogard’s average exit velocity was in the 5th percentile of all hitters, and his hard contact rate was in the 3rd percentile.
In terms of “expected” outcomes based on the quality of his batted balls, Eric fared 20 points better in terms of batting average (.270 versus .290) and a whopping 84 points better in slugging percentage (.457 versus .373). Sogard finished 2019 with a weighed on base average of .342; among the 241 batters who accumulated at least 350 plate appearances, the 35 point gap between Sogard’s actual wOBA and his expected wOBA (.307) was the ninth-largest. Eric’s xwOBA ranked only in the 22nd percentile of MLB hitters.
If southpaw swinger Sogard cannot sustain or at least come close to the level of production he provided in 2019, he could cede playing time to the man he’s slated to platoon with at the hot corner. That is, if right-handed hitting Jedd Gyorko can orchestrate a major bounceback campaign himself.
A thorn in Milwaukee’s side for several years while with the Cardinals, Gyorko hit .259/.331/.463 with 61 home runs during three seasons from 2016-18 before dealing with calf and back injuries in 2019. He was limited to 62 games and 101 plate appearances between the Cardinals and Dodgers, hitting a mere .174/.248/.250 with two home runs for a 36 wRC+. There is some reason to believe that some was misfortune involved in Gyorko’s awful season in 2019, however. His strikeout (23.8%) and walk (8.9%) rates were largely on par with his career averages. Additionally, his BABIP of .212 was in the bottom-15 of all batters with at least 100 trips to the plate and nearly 60 points below his career average of .279. Given that same plate appearance threshold, however, Gyorko did rank among the league’s worst in terms of soft contact rate (27.9%, 5th-worst) and infield fly balls (18.5%, 25th-worst). He’s also one of the slowest players in baseball, clocking in with a Sprint Speed in only the 8th percentile.
Gyorko finished 2019 with a 68 DRC+ between his two stops as well as an xwOBA of .267. Both of those marks are still generally awful, but his hypothetical production was at least notably better than his actual output at the dish. The Brewers also ran him through and “extensive” physical before he signed on the dotted line to ensure that he’s fully healthy, so perhaps his production will tick back up without being encumbered by injury.
While the plan is for Sogard and Gyorko to see most of the action at third base, utilityman Brock Holt could also factor into the mix there on occasion. Other 40-man roster depth at the position includes Ryon Healy, Ronny Rodriguez, and Mark Mathias.
In the Minors
Lucas Erceg continues to plummet down prospect lists as he struggles to figure out upper-level pitching. After a below-average season in Double-A in 2018, Erceg hit .218/.305/.398 in San Antonio last season, which translated to a not-so-nice 69 wRC+ in the extremely hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. Utility-types like Jace Peterson and Andres Blanco figure to share the position with him in Triple-A. Further on down the ladder are guys like Jake Gatewood, Gabriel Garcia, Weston Wilson, Antonio Pinero, Aaron Familia, Yeison Coca, and Nick Egnatuk.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Savant