- Travis Shaw broke out last season, giving the Brewers a strong middle-of-the-order bat, and fantasy owners another reliable option at third base.
Certain player types emerge every February and March as fantasy baseball owners prepare for their drafts and auctions. The specific players who fill those roles change, but the roles themselves carry over from year to year. Identifying the players who fit each archetype before you sit down to build your team can help you find hidden value and avoid impending busts. We’ll take a look at the 10 most identifiable, enduring archetypes in our Player Profile series. In this edition, we consider The Late Bloomer: Travis Shaw of the Milwaukee Brewers.
Travis Shaw has never been in the vanguard among players in his age group. He was born in April of 1990, which had him in the high school class of 2008. Starlin Castro is about three weeks older than Shaw, yet made his MLB debut five full years before Milwaukee’s third baseman. Other players born in 1990 include Jose Altuve, Salvador Perez, Jean Segura, Marcell Ozuna, Anthony Rendon, Wil Myers, Billy Hamilton, Gerrit Cole, Jake Odorizzi and Trevor Rosenthal. All of those players arrived before Shaw literally, and most did so figuratively, as well.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Shaw spent three years in college. He was selected in the 32nd round of the 2008 amateur draft, but chose to forego a deal with the Red Sox in favor of Kent State University. Three years later, the Red Sox nabbed him in the amateur draft again, this time in the ninth round. He joined the organization, making his first stop at short-season ball with the Lowell Spinners.
Shaw’s deliberate pace did not end there. Unlike fellow recent three- or four-year college players who made short work of the minors, like Kris Bryant and Michael Conforto, Shaw spent about four years, including three full seasons, down on the farm. He didn’t significantly improve with each passing year, especially at the higher levels, hitting .249/.318/.356 with Triple-A Pawtucket in 2015 before joining the Red Sox for good in August. He played 65 games with the Red Sox that year, and then got his first full season under his belt in 2016. Through the first two seasons of Shaw’s MLB career, he hit .251/.312/.442 with 29 homers and 107 RBI in 778 plate appearances. Entering his age-27 season, he looked like he’d be a serviceable backup and occasional starter, but likely no more than that.
Two things changed for Shaw before the start of the 2017 season. The first, more obvious one, was his jersey. The Red Sox traded Shaw, among others, to the Brewers for reliever Tyler Thornburg. The second was his approach. Both helped Shaw break out at 27 years old, turning into the league’s latest example of the Late Bloomer.
Before we talk about the changes, let’s first lay out the damage Shaw did to pitchers last season, and just how effectively he made the Red Sox regret moving him. Shaw set career-highs across the board, hitting .273/.349/.513 with 31 homers, 34 doubles and 101 RBI. He doubled his home run total from the previous season, and left the yard two more times in 144 games than he had in the first 210 games of his career.
Now, the changes, starting with the move to Milwaukee. In the Brewers, Shaw found a team committed to slotting him into the middle of the lineup every day. It didn’t hurt that he got a huge boost from his new ballpark, either. Miller Park has long been one of the best hitters’ parks in the league, and that remained true last year. Among all 60 combinations of hitter handedness and park, lefties at Miller Park ranked 27th in home run factor, according to Baseball Prospectus. Lefties at Fenway Park, meanwhile, ranked 58th.
Shaw, too, changed who he is at the plate. His walk rate increased to 9.9% from 8.1% the previous season, while his strikeout rate dipped to 22.8% from 25.1%. He swung at fewer pitches out of the zone, cutting his o-swing rate, the frequency with which a hitter swings at pitches that would end up as balls, to 29.3% from 32.7%. All that helped Shaw cut his whiff rate to a career-best 8.9%, leading to a major increase on balls in play. A more disciplined approach will almost always pay dividends, and it did for Shaw last season.
There is one element of Shaw’s batted-ball profile so counterintuitive for a player who dramatically increased his power profile that it almost seems like a typo. Over the first two seasons of his career, Shaw hit comfortably more fly balls than grounders. He flipped that on its head last year, posting a 37.6% fly-ball rate and 42.5% ground-ball rate. It isn’t often that we see a player significantly cut his fly-ball rate while hitting double as many homers as he did the previous year, but that’s exactly what Shaw did in 2017.
Here’s the thing, though. Remember all those additional balls in play that we just referenced? That helped keep Shaw’s volume of fly balls relatively stable. Shaw may have lost seven percentage points of fly-ball rate, but that owes largely to the fact that he made far more contact last season than he did in 2016. Shaw still hit 151 fly balls last year, compared with 156 the previous season. Add in line drives, and Shaw hit more balls in the air in 2017 than he did the prior year.
Shaw’s change in approach brought about the desired results. His hard-hit rate increased to 37.1%, while his soft-hit rate plummeted to 15.8%. A player focused on the top half of the ball is likely to keep his bat in the hitting zone longer, and that will often lead to improved performance when hitting the ball back up the middle and to the opposite field. That’s exactly what we saw from Shaw last season. When going up the middle, he hit .390 with a .603 slugging percentage and six homers. When going opposite field, he totaled a .340 batting average, .553 slugging percentage and three homers. All but the batting average to the opposite field were career highs, and no one is going to knock him for hitting .340 on balls hit to the left side.
Shaw is coming off the board at an average draft position of 92.29, which places him ninth among third baseman. As good as he was last season, that’s an appropriate place for him. Before last year, however, it seemed he’d register as no more than a blip on the fantasy radar at any point in his career. The Late Bloomer, however, is ready for another top-10 campaign at his position.