Well, we’ve reached the point of the year in which we’re no longer tuning into games just to see if the Red Sox win or lose. When the team is this bad, a single victory or defeat is not going to make any kind of major difference. That doesn’t mean there’s no reason to watch, though. Even if it’s not as enjoyable as watching a competitive team, there’s plenty of fun to be had in watching young players come up and mature before our eyes, and Boston has plenty of that right now. Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Blake Swihart, Eduardo Rodriguez, Henry Owens, and even Jackie Bradley and Rusney Castillo apply here. All of those players had a considerable amount of hype surrounding them at various points of their respective careers, but there’s one young player who didn’t have that hype, but may be carving out a role for himself in 2016. I, of course, refer to Travis Shaw.
Although I wouldn’t exactly call him irrelevant coming into the season, he was certainly something close to it. Those who followed the team closely certainly knew who he was, but he was never supposed to be much more than a Quad-A player at this point of his career. Between injuries and underperformance, more playing time than anyone expected opened up for him, and to say he has taken advantage of it would be an understatement.
Shaw has come to the plate 63 times for the Red Sox in 2015, and has put up a stellar .328/.365/.621 slash-line, good for a 162 OPS+. For context, that is equivalent to Anthony Rizzo’s offensive performance this year, although it’s obviously come in far fewer plate appearances. The most impressive part of his game thus far has clearly been his power, as he’s already hit five home runs and boasts a ridiculous .293 Isolated Power, one point lower than Mike Trout (again, in far fewer plate appearances).
Photo Credit: Rich Gagnon/Getty
Now, here comes the downer portion of the program, although it shouldn’t be unexpected. It doesn’t take a baseball genius to realize that Shaw isn't going to remain this good. As it stands right now, he’s performing like a legitimate MVP candidate. If you’re expecting that from the 25-year-old, you are both extremely optimistic and horribly unfair to first-year professional baseball players. What’s encouraging, however, is that his luck stats don't look too outrageous.
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For one thing, his batting average on balls in play sits at just .308. Although that’s not a bad number by any means, it’s not something that you’d expect from a rookie playing way over his expected performance. If Shaw kept that kind of BABIP moving forward, we wouldn't really blink an eye. What does stand out, on the other hand, is his 23.8 percent home-run-to-fly-ball-ratio, per Fangraphs. That’s almost certainly unsustainable, coming in about 14 percentage points above the league-average. Only 16 players with at least 50 plate appearances have a higher rate, and players around him on the leaderboard include Carlos Gonzalez, Carlos Correa and Kyle Schwarber. While Shaw should have decent power through his career, we shouldn’t expect it to be that good.
It doesn’t all point towards his power going away, however. Although this is far from scientific, the ESPN home run tracker categorizes every home run as "no-doubt," "plenty," "just enough," or "lucky." Of his five home runs this season, three of Shaw’s were classified as "plenty," while one was called "just enough" and another went down as a "no-doubter." If you were watching last night, it shouldn’t be surprising to learn his blast off Danny Salazar was the "no-doubter."
When a young player that I didn't get to see much of in the minors plays this well at the major-league level, the next obvious step as a fan is to check as many scouting reports as possible. Of course, these scouting reports aren’t infallible, but they usually give you a good idea of what one should expect from players.
Sox Prospects had this to say about his hit and power tools.
Hit: Good plate discipline and advanced approach. Sweet spot for pitches down and in due to upward swing path. Fringe-average bat speed, struggles against high velocity fastballs. Needs improvement covering outer third. Can be long with his swing, but stays back to hit inside of the ball. Middle-to-opposite field approach. Future fringe-average hit tool.
Power: Strength for power, but not with current approach. At his best focusing middle-opposite field but will get out in front and run into a pitch every now and then. Average power potential.
Obviously, this doesn’t really match what we’ve seen thus far, especially in the power department. We see the strength they’ve mentioned, but he’s turned that raw strength into in-game power. They also mentioned a potential weakness against fastballs, but he’s hit four of his five home runs off fastballs and has a .391 batting average off them to boot.
Then, we have this from last year courtesy of Baseball Prospectus’ Al Skorupa.
Big, strong guy with easy plus raw power: ball explodes off his bat and can do it easy; hits moonshots in batting practice. Best power RCF to RF pole but can drive ball out any field; looks to pull often; can get pull happy and start lunging at outside pitches. Fringe-average bat speed; susceptible to good velo; can be eaten up by velo under his hands; good amount of swing-and-miss; unrefined approach at the plate. Moves okay at 1B, but his hands are on the hard side. Not sure he'll hit enough to hold down a starting 1B job but has a potentially useful big league bat."
Again, we see some worry around his ability to hit major-league fastballs. As I said, that hasn't been an issue thus far. With multiple sources worrying about it, however, it’s certainly something to watch for. Pitchers will likely start to make their adjustments based on his film, and now is the time to see if he can adjust back.
It’s not entirely fair to say that Shaw has come completely out of nowhere this season, but what he’s done has come close. He wasn’t supposed to get much of a chance in 2015, but instead has been the best hitter over the last few weeks. Looking forward to next year, it’s appearing more and more likely that he’ll be on the Opening Day roster. The rest of the season will play a big factor in determining his role in 2016, but it should be something resembling a back-up corner infielder. He’s passable at both positions, and should be able to find time there. It’s possible he could even find himself as the everyday first baseman next season, although that seems more like a backup plan than what they should be trying to do. Whatever he ends up doing next year, it will be more than any of us expected from the formerly unheralded rookie.