It was easy to forget about Travis Shaw before the 2015 season. He was a little too old, not the sort of "blue chip" prospect that fans froth and obsess over in the rankings, and was blocked at the major league level to boot, making a push for a position with the 2015 Red Sox pretty much impossible. Not much was expected of Shaw when, after a couple of unimpressive early-season stints, the Sox called up the 25-year-old in August, but the 2011 ninth-round pick certainly took advantage of the opportunity.
While filling in at a variety of spots, Shaw displayed a power potential that many did not see coming. In 65 games last season, Shaw slammed 13 home runs in just 226 at bats. The surprisingly strong offensive stat line from Shaw last season (.270/.327/.487, 13 home runs, 36 RBI, 10 doubles in 248 plate appearances) totals out to a 162 game average of 32 home runs, 90 RBI and 25 doubles. That certainly exceeds the "fringe-average, second-division regular" potential that SoxProspects ascribes to Shaw.
Shaw's performance last season impressed a major new player in the baseball operations department for the Red Sox:
"I guess we’ll all have to wait and have to see in that regard," Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski told Comcast SportsNet. "But I think we’re fortunate to have an individual like Travis Shaw in our organization. Because Travis did very well for us when it came to the second half of the season last year. He can play multiple positions, but he played very well at first base for us so he gives us a good contingency plan."
That contingency plan, of course, is just in case Hanley Ramirez forgets how to play baseball again. That possibility certainly exists, and would likely see Shaw thrust into a starting role. Whether or not Shaw could actually hold down a starting position over the course of a full season is certainly questionable.
Consider this: Shaw put up an impressive stat line in 65 games and 248 plate appearances. In 2012, Will Middlebrooks hit .288/.325/.509 with 15 home runs, 54 RBI and 14 doubles in 75 games and 286 plate appearances. Middlebrooks just signed a minor-league deal with the Brewers after a lackluster stint in San Diego, so it's a good reminder that 75 games, let alone 65, is far from enough of a sample size to guarantee success at the major league level down the road. Middlebrooks was a much more highly regarded prospect than Shaw coming up as well, for whatever that is worth.
So it goes without saying that a small sample size of success doesn't necessarily translate to someone playing well as a full-time player. Teams make adjustments, pitchers begin to exploit weaknesses, and hitters inevitably fall into slumps. Brock Holt is a really valuable, useful player for a team, but over the last two years, he's demonstrated that he's most valuable as a super-utility player than as a starter, as seen in the dropoff in performance he's had after playing on a nearly full-time basis. The same, hypothetically, could be true for Shaw.
It's reasonable to expect that pitchers will adjust and stop throwing Travis Shaw pitches over the middle of the plate because Travis Shaw demolishes pitches right down the middle of the plate.
The fact of the matter is that coming up through the minor leagues, Shaw never sustained this level of production over the course of a full season. Many evaluators were surprised when Shaw displayed the enormous power he displayed in his short stint in the major leagues last year. While in the minor leagues, Shaw never posted a home run total of greater than 21 over the course of a full season.
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For Shaw, this type of extended power is likely not sustainable when considering a couple of factors. Over the course of Shaw's minor league career, his highest ISO (isolated power) in a sample of more than 65 games above Single-A was .173, significantly less than the .217 he showed in the big leagues. Fenway Park doesn't help things either, given Shaw's tendency to pull the baseball at a rate of 39.8 percent and the challenges Fenway's right field poses for left-handed power hitters.
Once Shaw got up to the majors, he saw a major decrease in groundball percentage and pop-up rate while also seeing major jumps in fly ball and line drive rate and seeing an increase of more than 250% in HR/FB compared to the rates he posted in Triple-A. The major jumps off of the averages Shaw posted in a larger sample size with Pawtucket suggests that Shaw is likely to see drop offs in that regard. That major increase in HR/FB rate in particular compared to his minor league totals is most likely to see a major regression when considering that teams now have 65 games of scouting tape to look at and that the jump from Triple-A pitching and major league pitching is about as big as it gets.
Shaw could be a very productive player at the major league level, and his small stint with the Red Sox proved that he's at least capable of producing strong performances. The sample size, however, is way too small for anyone to declare that Shaw could be an everyday performer at the major league level when considering the book on him before his call-up and the major deviation from the numbers he posted in the minor leagues. Shaw is certainly a player who is worth keeping around in case something goes wrong with Hanley, and there's certainly value in a player like that, but it's hard to say that he will definitely develop into a consistent contributor at the major league level. Will Middlebrooks certainly knows that.