Much the same as they did on the other corner of the diamond, the Milwaukee Brewers received generally woeful production from their third baseman during the 2020 pandemic season. The group’s collective 74 wRC+ was 28th in baseball and their 0.3 fWAR was t-22nd. Jedd Gyorko, Brock Holt, and Eric Sogard were all jettisoned, and at a position where simply receiving “average” production would be a major improvement, the front office sought out an old friend who himself is working to get back to an “average” level of performance.
Days before pitchers and catchers reported to camp in February, the Brewers inked Shaw to a minor league contract, and later added him to the 40-man roster with the assurance of an Opening Day roster spot. Shaw is obviously a recognizable name after spending three years with the team in the recent past, but the final season of that span and the circumstances of his initial departure from the team caused him to become something of a polarizing figure among certain segments of the fanbase.
“The Mayor of Ding Dong City” was largely celebrated during his first two seasons with the club, posting back-to-back 30+ home runs seasons with 7.2 fWAR while batting mostly cleanup and helping the team get back to the playoffs after a rebuild. But an ill-advised swing change helped contribute to a dramatic cratering of production in 2019, when he at times was maligned by the fans for blocking Keston Hiura’s spot on the roster, and then caught heat for expressing frustration about his own performance and demotion to the minor leagues.
After a non-tender by the Brewers, Shaw bounced back to a degree with a decent season for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2020. As our Jack Stern presciently explored in the days before his signing with Milwaukee, Shaw posted a career-best average exit velocity and hard contact rate last season, made some improvements with his sudden swing-and-miss problems, and reduced his average launch angle back towards to the range where he had his most success. Shaw insisted before the signing that there was no ill-will towards the organization regarding his initial ouster from the roster, and after getting added back to the 40-man, he told reporters “I couldn’t be more excited to get back to Milwaukee and kind of get everything back on track the way I feel it can be.”
Manager Craig Counsell has said at times during the spring that the 2020 version of Shaw is someone who can be impactful to the roster; he was a slightly-below average bat last summer, posting a .239/.306/.411 slash line with six home runs across 180 plate appearances for a 92 wRC+. Still, that is nearly 80 points of OPS more than what CC received from his men at the hot corner this past season. Again, simply getting average production from third base would make a meaningful difference to the team’s run-scoring ability.
Shaw was once graded as a plus defender at third base but his metrics have slipped to below-average by Defensive Runs Saved over the past two years; UZR still sees him as a slight positive at the position, however. When Shaw, a left-handed hitter is not in the lineup, it was revealed yesterday that Orlando Arcia would begin seeing time at that position. Sunk cost fallacy be damned, the Brewers seem committed to figuring out if Luis Urias can play shortstop, even with Orlando coming off the best offensive season of his career. So Arcia will be splitting time between short and third, likely playing the hot corner against left-handed pitchers, while he and Urias also split time at short. Daniel Robertson should factor in the mix at both those positions, too.
In the Minors
Zach Green, who owns an impressive Triple-A track record and got a cup of coffee with the Giants at the highest level in 2019, opened some eyes as a non-roster invitee to Spring Training and should be a top candidate to earn playing time at the big level whenever a need at third base (or first base) may arise. Worth noting perhaps, too, that the 27 year old still has a full slate of three minor league options. He’s MLB-ready, as are Jace Peterson, Mark Mathias, and Tim Lopes. but there are still plenty of questions as to whether or not former top prospect Lucas Erceg ever will be. Further down the ladder are the likes of Weston Wilson, David Fry, Gabriel Garcia, Yeison Coca, Felix Valerio.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Savant