Blue Jays’ Travis Shaw bouncing back from dismal 2019 in some significant ways

Toronto Blue Jays' Travis Shaw (6) hits a three-run home run during the fifth inning of a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, in Baltimore. (Tommy Gilligan/AP)

When the Toronto Blue Jays signed Travis Shaw to a one-year $4 million deal in the off-season, it’s fair to say they didn’t know what they were going to get.

Between 2017 and 2018 Shaw was a middle-of-the-order threat who hit 63 home runs and played above-average defence at third base, racking up 7.1 Wins Above Replacement. In 2019, he slashed .157/.281/.270, making him literally one of the worst hitters in the game. He even earned a demotion to triple-A.

It’s awfully difficult to chart someone’s career trajectory after that level of inconsistency. If you are going to make a projection, your best guess is that a player’s true talent lies in between the extremes of their performance. The Blue Jays were probably hoping Shaw would be a solid left-handed hitter in a lineup that lacks them this year rather than the impact bat he was during that 2017-2018 stretch.

[snippet id=4931337]

So far, they have to be pleased with the return on their investment. Shaw is hitting .250/.328/.442 and looking more like the guy who helped fuel surprising Milwaukee Brewers teams than the guy who was so lost at the plate they demoted and non-tendered him.

Shaw’s performance is puzzling, though, because it hasn’t smoothed out across the board. Instead, he’s hitting the ball like it’s 2017, but missing it like it’s 2019.

The most impressive thing the third baseman has done is make forceful contact on a consistent basis. His average exit velocity of 92.6 mph is higher than anything he’s recorded before and his Expected Slugging is a meaty .562.

“It’s satisfying seeing myself hit the ball as hard as I am this year,” he said of his strong Statcast numbers in a Zoom meeting Wednesday. “I’ve run into some tough luck hitting it right at people, I’ve had a home run robbed, that kind of thing.”

He’s certainly right there. Shaw had a particularly unlucky trip to Boston in which Mitch Moreland stole two possible doubles down the first base line and Alex Verdugo ripped a home run from his grasp.

On Monday, he had another home run stolen, this time by Camden Yards — which swallowed up his 404-foot flyball with its peculiar 410-foot nook in left-centre.

Not only is Shaw hitting the ball hard, his batted ball profile is far more promising. Last season, the veteran third baseman tried to get everything in the air in an effort to maximize his power but it backfired, resulting in an array of popups and harmless fly balls. This year he isn’t forcing it, allowing the balls he gets in the air to be dangerous.

Time Period Groundball % Flyball % GB/FB HR/FB
2017-18 40.0% 41.1% 0.98 19.3%
2019 28.6% 49.3% 0.58 10.1%
2020 34.4% 36.4% 1.00 25.0%

“I’m not hitting the ball in the air as much as I was last year,” he said of the trend. “That was a huge focal point of mine coming into the season. I’ve kind of cleaned up the launch angle.”

That launch angle has come down from 24.9 degrees last season, to a comfortable 15.0, which is more in line with the 14.9 and 16.9 he posted in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

Shaw is not only hitting the ball hard, but he’s also doing it a manner more similar to what’s worked for him in the past. That’s the good news.

The bad news for the 30-year-old, and the Blue Jays is how infrequently he’s actually hitting the ball. When Shaw’s production plummeted last season, one of the biggest reasons for it was a soaring strikeout rate. That trend has continued in 2020.

Right now Shaw’s contact rate of 70.5 per cent is 202nd among the 260 hitters with at least 50 plate appearances this year. More troubling is his zone contact rate of 73.5 per cent, which ranks 246th. Far too often he’s swinging through hittable pitches, whether they’re hanging breaking balls…

…or middle-cut heaters.

What makes this a touch alarming is that strikeouts tends to mean something even in a small sample. If you were going to bet on whether Shaw’s strong Statcast numbers or ugly strikeout rate were going to stick, you’d be safer with the latter. Though he’s played just 14 games in 2020, he had just one 14-game stretch with a strikeout rate this high during 2017 and 2018 and never saw his zone contact rate dip this low.

It’s still too early to render a hard verdict on Shaw’s 2020, and thanks to the truncated season evaluating him after this campaign will be a tall task no matter what happens. Even so, it does seem like the Blue Jays are getting what they paid for, a guy in between the dramatic poles of his prior production.

Surprisingly, Shaw is making it work by taking elements from both periods of his career instead of meeting in the middle on everything.


When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.