Since this is the time of year that we typically look ahead to the coming season, we’ll do just that at Blue Jays from Away and try to look into the crystal ball to see what we’re going to get for the 2020 Toronto Blue Jays, continuing with another of the Blue Jays’ free agent acquisitions of the offseason, infielder Travis Shaw.
The signing of Shaw by the Blue Jays is a classic move by this front office. Find a player who may be undervalued by other teams for some reason and buy low on him, hoping to get better performance than expected and either trade him at the deadline or have him add to the team going forward. In Shaw’s case, his value declined after a miserable 2019 season with the Milwaukee Brewers in which he posted a .157/.281/.270 slash line for a 47 OPS+ and -0.8 WAR. While Shaw has a track record of strong offense and good defense, mostly at third base, his poor 2019 performance caused his value to plummet and he signed a one-year, $4 million contract with the Blue Jays after he was non-tendered by the Brewers.
In addition to the Blue Jays getting a potential bargain in Shaw, this signing represents a perfect storm as Shaw has been quoted as saying that he changed his swing last offseason “after receiving some advice. But when it didn’t feel right, he bailed on it midway through spring training. Except by then, the change had taken hold and he had trouble reverting back to what had worked for him during the previous two seasons” (Kaitlyn McGrath, The Athletic).
Last season’s struggles for Shaw make him a very interesting buy-low candidate because if he can return to what he did in 2017 and 2018, the Blue Jays are getting a very different kind of hitter than they have typically gone after under this regime. Unlike guys like Derek Fisher, Randal Grichuk, Teoscar Hernandez, Billy McKinney and others, Shaw’s track record from 2017 and 2018 with the Brewers was a .258/.347/.497 slash line with an 11.6% walk rate and a 20.6% strikeout rate contributing 3.5 fWAR in 2017 and 3.6 fWAR in 2018. The .347 OBP he compiled over two years with Milwaukee would have placed him second on the 2019 Blue Jays, behind only Cavan Biggio and ahead of Justin Smoak.
Looking into Shaw’s Statcast data is actually quite interesting because, really, it was his strikeout rate, barrel percentage and launch angle that worked against him in 2019. His average exit velocity remained fairly stable and in face was up slightly in 2019 as he had an 88.3 mph average exit velo in 2017, 88.4 in 2019 and 88.7 in 2019 with the league average at 87.5. He also had 38.9% hard-hit percentage in 2017, 38.0 in 2018 and 37.9 in 2019, meaning that he was still hitting the ball just as hard, but not necessarily as squarely and he was hitting more balls in the air in 2019 with a 24.4 degree launch angle in 2019 with averages of 14.6 degrees in 2017 and 16.6 degrees in 2018.
What this looks like is that perhaps Shaw went with more of an uppercut in 2019, leading to more swings and misses. The fact that he was swinging and missing more in 2019 can be borne out with the data on Fangraphs, saying that while he swung at roughly the same number of pitches (actually swinging at pitches outside of the zone less in 2019 and inside the zone more), he made less contact, with his contact outside the strike zone (O-contact%) at 60.5% (down from 67.0% in 2017 and 70.9% in 2018) and his contact inside the zone (Z-contact%) at 76.7% in 2019 (down from 87.9% in both 2017 and 2018). This means that he made contact on 70.8% of balls he swung at, down from 80.1% in 2017 and 81.4% in 2018. That is a significant difference and must have contributed greatly to his 33.0% strikeout rate. The other thing was that his BABIP dropped to .216 in 2019. He also had a HR/FB rate of 10.1%, meaning that his fly balls were higher and shorter in 2019 because that figure was 20.5% in 2017 and 18.3% in 2018, years in which he hit over 30 home runs.
So what can predict for Shaw? I’m thinking that he’s going to have a bounceback year. If he, as he’s stated himself, made a swing adjustment that he just couldn’t fix during the season (although his Triple-A numbers in 42 games were significantly better at .286/.437/.586 with a 20.7% walk rate and 21.3% strikeout rate) and he’s able to fix it in the offseason, Shaw stands to be a big contributor to the 2020 Blue Jays. Fangraphs’s Steamer projection has him hitting .232/.329/.441 with 20 home runs in 434 plate appearances but I think that he eclipses that.
My prediction? .252/.344/.505, with 34 home runs, playing 136 games but his WAR will be down to 2.8 because he’ll be playing mostly first base which will allow him to contribute less defensively. What do you think?
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