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Milwaukee Brewers free agent target: Travis Shaw

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An old friend may be the best bargain left at the hot corner.

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

After Justin Turner’s predictable return to the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Brewers still have not acquired an obvious solution at third base. With pitchers and catchers set to report to camp in a matter of days, Luis Urias (whose bat does not profile well for the position) and Daniel Robertson (a utility infielder with mixed results in 250 career big-league games) are Milwaukee’s top in-house options at the hot corner.

With the former All-Star Turner now off the board, the remaining third base options on the free agent market aren’t exactly exciting. Jedd Gyorko could re-up with the Crew, but he still profiles best as a versatile platoon bat that does most of his damage against southpaws. Maikel Franco is available, but he is more or less a younger version of Gyorko that makes more contact but is inconsistent at the plate and a liability in the field. Unless David Stearns and Matt Arnold magically pull off a trade for Indians star Jose Ramirez, any outside acquisition for third will be a buy-low deal. The best potential bargain left at the position just might be another former Brewer.

Travis Shaw’s tenure in Milwaukee started exceptionally. Shaw slashed a well-above-average .258/.347/.497 with 63 dingers—including back-to-back seasons of over 30 long balls—over the 2017 and 2018 seasons combined, good for a 120 wRC+. Coupled with steady defense at third base, he was worth 3.5 Wins Above Replacement in each of those seasons according to FanGraphs. It looked as though the Brewers had found a player who could capably hold down the position for the next several years.

Then, out of nowhere, Shaw’s production collapsed. In 2019, he slashed a miserable .157/.281/.270 (48 wRC+) and saw his strikeout rate balloon to 33%. This was all the more surprising because Shaw’s plate discipline improved notably the season prior. The former role player saw himself demoted to the minor leagues multiple times throughout the season, and he was non-tendered that winter. He caught on with the Blue Jays for the shortened 2020 season, where his offense rebounded somewhat (92 wRC+), but he was non-tendered for the second consecutive year.

While his performance wasn’t enough to convince Toronto that he was worth keeping around, Shaw may be close to getting his groove back, or at least being a serviceable hitter again. 2020 saw some positive signs emerge in his batted ball data.

Travis Shaw Quality of Contact

Years Average Exit Velocity (MPH) Average Launch Angle (°) Hard Hit% Barrel% xwOBAcon
Years Average Exit Velocity (MPH) Average Launch Angle (°) Hard Hit% Barrel% xwOBAcon
2017-2018 88.9 15.9 38.7% 8.7% .389
2019 89 24.9 37.9% 7.1% .355
2020 90.9 19.8 44.70% 7.9% .393
Data courtesy of Baseball Savant.

Shaw’s average exit velocity and hard hit rates were his highest ever, and his expected wOBA on balls put in play was the highest it had been since his 2017 breakout season. After his average launch angle spiked to a discouraging extreme in 2019, he reduced it and cut down on the number of pop-ups he hit. There is also evidence that Shaw’s power returned to a greater extent than his slash line indicates. Statcast’s Expected Home Run calculations aim to evaluate how much a hitter’s home run total was impacted by the dimensions of the ballparks he played in. The expected home run total is reached by tracking the number of stadiums in which a given batted ball would have left the yard. By this metric, Shaw was among the hitters who saw their long ball total most negatively impacted by the ballparks they played in.

Concerns remain, however. While Shaw’s performance on balls in play improved, he still did not put it in play enough. While it was an improvement, his 27% strikeout rate was still closer to his worrisome 2019 mark than the 20.6% rate from his best two-year stretch, and his swinging strike rate remained a troubling 12.1%. His walk rate also dropped below 9% for the first time since 2016. His Milwaukee tenure also ended on a sour note, and while he stated on Twitter that he has no hard feelings, he may not desire to return to the Cream City.

If Shaw is open to a reunion, he would be a risk-free addition. He is available for cheap, and he may not even require a guaranteed contract. Bringing him in to see if there is anything left in that bat and allowing him to compete for the starting gig at the hot corner certainly would not hurt. With Gyorko also available, Stearns and Arnold could bring both players back to form a platoon. It may not be the most dazzling move, but it could be a helpful one given that the club’s internal options do not generate much excitement.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball Savant and FanGraphs.