TORONTO – Last off-season, Travis Shaw wanted to gain a better understanding of how his swing works. The slugging corner infielder coming off consecutive .800-plus OPS seasons for the Milwaukee Brewers isn’t a big mechanics nerd, but info is all the rage in the game these days, so he went for an assessment.
Along with the details came a couple of suggestions, tune-up ideas Shaw says he "took to heart" and worked on the entire winter. In the testing grounds of spring training, he discovered that rather giving his swing a turbo-charge, the mechanical adjustments instead led to a total breakdown. He spent the rest of 2019 trying to restore his original stroke, the one that generated an OPS+ of 121 in ‘17 and 119 in ’18.
By the time Shaw felt he had everything sorted out, the Brewers had moved on, leading them to non-tender him Dec. 2. That’s when the Toronto Blue Jays began their pursuit of the 29-year-old, leading to a $4-million, one-year deal agreed to before the holidays and finalized this week.
He vows that "last year was not the player that I am, that’s not going to be the player I am in the future," something he’ll get a chance to prove in 2020 as the primary replacement for the departed Justin Smoak at first base.
"Obviously, it kind of backfired on me," Shaw said of swing changes during a conference call Friday. "I fought my body and fought myself all year, trying to get myself back to where I was the two years prior to that. I felt like at the end of the season I was in a pretty good spot, and I was finally starting to turn the corner to getting back to where I was in previous years. I took that into the off-season, I continued to hit when I got home for like two weeks, just to make sure that feeling I had at the end of the year stayed with me."
Shaw’s experience is an important cautionary tale as the industry continues to embrace advanced information, data points and coaching from third-party sources. While some places like Kyle Boddy’s famed Driveline have become leaders in the field, particularly when it comes to pitching mechanics, there’s a flip side in which players could potentially end up reeling, too.
That’s what happened to Shaw during a 2019 season he describes as "about as bad as you can possibly go." He batted .151/.281/.271 in 270 plate appearances over 86 big-league games around three stints at triple-A San Antonio, caught in between his new swing and the original he was trying to replicate.
As a result, his launch angle went from an average range of 14.6-16.6 degrees from 2015-18 to 24.4 last year, which isn’t necessarily bad. But his pop-up percentage also rose six per cent to 16.3 while his whiff percentage spiked from 20.4 to 30.2 per cent, with an exploitable vulnerability up in the zone.
To diagnose the issue, Shaw watched "a ton of video" and at the end of 2019, by which point he mostly sat idly on the bench as the Brewers rallied to win a National League wild card, felt he’d righted himself. Since signing with the Blue Jays, he’s been in regular contact with hitting coach Guillermo Martinez by phone and text, discussing what he’s doing, and will start sending videos over once he begins taking full BP in the coming days.
The goal is for Martinez to act as a visual check, ensuring that what Shaw is doing and feeling correspond, a worthy precaution given how easily a swing that didn’t work became ingrained.
"I think I was too far into it," Shaw said in explaining why he had so much trouble reverting to his original swing. "I had practised it so much over the off-season that I had created some muscle memory in that swing and for some reason I just had a really hard time getting back to where I was the two years before. I just fought all year to try and get that feeling and I could never regain that feeling I had before until later in the season. It finally turned the corner a little bit toward the end of September. I didn’t have an opportunity to prove that or to show it had fixed itself in the game, but physically I’m in a good spot, mentally I’m in a good spot and I’m looking forward to this fresh start in 2020 and getting things started off on the right foot again."
Shaw will be doing that as one of the few, thus far at least, position player changes during an off-season focused on pitching for the Blue Jays. Ace left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu, Tanner Roark, Chase Anderson and Shun Yamaguchi have all been added to bolster a now major league-calibre rotation, and that’s where the bulk of the roster upgrade has taken place.
In replacing Smoak’s dependability with Shaw’s upside and defensive versatility – the bulk of his defensive work in the majors has been at third base, and he’s also logged 270.2 innings at second – the Blue Jays sought to buy low on some middle of the order thump.
At the same time, they also add the son of another former big-league all-star to the roster, the son of former Montreal Expos reliever Jeff Shaw joining second baseman Cavan Biggio, shortstop Bo Bichette and third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
"That’s incredible," said Shaw. "A lot of these guys grew up around baseball, grew up in clubhouses like myself, it’s pretty cool looking at that infield and seeing all second generational major-league players."
For the Blue Jays, it will be even cooler that after resetting his swing, Shaw resumes hitting like them, too.