The Inevitable Travis Shaw Regression

If Pablo Sandoval’s shoulder injury, which cost him the entire 2016 season, didn’t put an unofficial end to his time with the Boston Red Sox, then the emergence of Travis Shaw very well may have. A player that was already set to supplant Sandoval at third base even before he went on the disabled list for the year, Shaw has experienced a quiet emergence for a rebounding Red Sox ballclub. As we begin to head into the final stretch of the month of May, he’s not only establishing himself as a quality starter at the position for the Red Sox, but is currently among the game’s best at the hot corner from a statistical standpoint. For now.

That was way more ominous than I may have meant for it to be. Nonetheless, we’re going to approach Travis Shaw with a sense of foreboding, as his regression would seem to be inevitable at this point.

Coming into the season, Shaw had 248 Major League plate appearances to his name, all taking place in 2015. He actually fared quite well in that sample, with 13 home runs, a .327 on-base percentage, and a 117 wRC+. It seemed a foregone conclusion that he’d grab regular at-bats somewhere in 2016, it was just a matter of where. Sandoval’s disastrous 2015 campaign, and the injury that will hold him out for the year, allowed that transition to take place. Shaw has taken the reigns at the hot corner and certainly hasn’t looked back.

His 1.9 WAR has him ranking with the best in a deep position. He’s slashing a cool .329/.400/.573/.973, with an ISO way up at .245, thanks to six home runs, 13 doubles, and a pair of triples. His wRC+ for the season is currently sitting at 164. That’s a whole lot to like from Shaw. Another thing to like? He’s hitting to all fields, as he’s hitting to the opposite field 32.7% of the time, good for fourth in the league among third basemen. On the surface, this looks like a dude who should be coveted in any league, in any format.

But there are also those who are likely standing at the ready to sell high on Travis Shaw. And if you find yourself in the situation where it’s something to be considered, that might be the move.

As impressive as his start to the season may be, there are those who will point to a couple of different things and declare that Shaw will take quite a step back in the relatively near future. Typically, there are two primary factors to which people point in times of a questionable hot start. Shaw would, then, represent a typical case. With a BABIP currently sitting over .400, that’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for concern. When you factor in the 22.6% strikeout rate, sixth highest among the league’s third sackers, there will be a lot of “I told you so’s” being doled out if and when Shaw does come back down to Earth.

Those are typically the first two categories that people look to when anticipating a regression of any sort: an unusually high BABIP and an unusually high strikeout rate. There are a few other factors that we can also delve into when exploring both of those individual statistics. And even digging a bit deeper doesn’t necessarily favor a continuation of what we’ve seen in this first month-and-a-half-plus for Travis Shaw.

Shaw has posted that astronomically high BABIP with a hard hit percentage that ranks just 18th among third basemen, at 30.8%. Conversely, he has the third highest Soft% among that same group, at 24.3%. He’s also hitting quite a few flyballs (not surprising if you took a quick look at his actual swing motion – there’s a not-completely-significant-but-very-noticeable shoulder drop), with a 43.9% rate, as opposed to a 20.6% LD%, the latter of which ranks only 17th. Those aren’t percentages that necessarily lend themselves to the ball continuing to find green as he continues to make contact. If there’s one thing working in his favor, it’s that ability to hit to all fields, but he’ll have to cut down on the flyballs and soft contact in order to maximize that benefit.

Additionally, when you throw in the fact that he’s not only swinging and missing at a relatively high percentage of pitches (10.1% SwStr%), but also couple it with a high swing percentage (47.7% – 7th among 3B), and compound it with a comparatively low contact rate (78.8% – 17th), then there are some factors that don’t exactly bode well for Shaw moving forward. If Shaw can become more selective at the plate, in terms of the type of pitches at which he’s swinging, then that could certainly change, given how his current distribution of success against various pitch types shapes up.

Now Shaw does have a couple of things going for him. His power would appear to be legitimate. In those 248 plate appearances last year, he was able to post a .217 ISO. He also does walk enough (8.8%) to maintain a strong OBP, which is somewhat surprising given his penchant for swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone (31.7% O-Swing%). Nonetheless, he’s been fairly consistent in his walk rate at the higher levels of the minor leagues and his brief time at this level, so he should be able to continue to demonstrate those OBP skills, even when that BABIP does eventually fall.

Of course, none of this is to say that we should expect Travis Shaw to fall into some Chris Shelton-type of abyss as the season progresses. He’s off to a hot start that is sure to cool eventually, but there are some things to like about his game, namely his power. Even in trying to stay positive, though, it’s hard to ignore the signs as that lingering metaphorical cloud indicates that a potential regression for Shaw is nigh. If this were a guy that was slinging linedrives to all fields, maintaining a consistent and top notch approach at the plate, and making hard contact at a 40% clip, then we might be talking about Shaw in a different context, other than the one which involves selling high on him.

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Pretty Tony
8 years ago

Poor Chris Shelton…can’t even get hyperlinked…