Is the Streaky Travis Shaw The Answer At First Base For The Red Sox?

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Despite the lackluster performance of the 2015 Boston Red Sox, the only position without an obvious starter is first base. Hanley Ramirez remains a possibility but it remains to be seen if the Red Sox will want to try to teach the slugger another position when he failed learning on this past year. Ian York takes a look at the streaky Travis Shaw to see if he has the bat to hold down first base until Sam Travis is ready to take over.

Travis Shaw became the starting first baseman for the Red Sox on August 1, with Mike Napoli being traded to the Texas Rangers on August 7. By that point in the season, the Sox no longer had any serious post-season hopes, and the general sense was that Shaw was simply a placeholder at first base, someone to fill the slot until a legitimate starter was available in 2016. After all, while Shaw had hit very well in his earlier MLB appearances (.417/.462/.708), that was in only 26 plate appearances spread over several months, and Shaw’s minor-league numbers made him look more like the sort of AAAA replacement-level player who are backups and fill-ins, and rarely starters. Although he had hit well at AA and below, he was hitting just .249/.318/.356 in AAA Pawtucket at the time of his callup, and at 25 years old didn’t have much more maturing to count on.

But in the majors, Shaw has been one of the pleasant surprises of 2015. In his 228 plate appearances since Aug. 1, he has hit .280/.338/.517, for a cumulative major-league OPS+ of 119. Defensively he has seemed comfortable at first, as well as filling in at third for a handful of games.

Still, baseball footnotes are filled with players who had a couple hundred good plate appearances in the majors and never repeated their success. (Most obviously for Red Sox fans, Will Middlebrooks in 2012 had a 121 OPS+ for the major-league Sox in 286 PA, and his subsequent career has been at best disappointing.) Is there any way of telling if Shaw has succeeded mainly on luck and pitchers’ unfamiliarity?

Looking at Shaw’s offensive output as rolling 10-game averages (with season averages shown as horizontal lines), we can see that his overall line has been built on two hot streaks, interspersed with slumps:

Shaw has a significant handedness split (OPS .963 against left-handed pitchers, .751 against righties). His streaks and slumps, though, have come mainly against lefties, while he has been relatively consistent against the right-handed pitchers.

Streaks are streaks, and often just random, but for a new player up from the minors the obvious question is whether scouts identified holes in his swing that pitchers could exploit. If so, the second hot streak may be a little encouraging, suggesting that Shaw was in turn adjusting to the new pitch pattern. Here is how pitchers, over the whole season, have thrown to Shaw, and how he has hit against them:

These plots are from the umpire’s viewpoint, so Shaw (as a left-handed batter) stands to the right of each plot; the grey polygons represent the de facto strike zone. Overall, Shaw prefers to hit middle-in, while pitchers have attacked him middle-out.

Breaking the same plots down to the various pitch types does not reveal a glaring weakness; Shaw is capable of hitting offspeed and breaking balls, again with a significant preference for middle-in.

Have pitchers changed their approach to Shaw, and has that correlated with his slumps and streaks at all? Again, we can use rolling averages to look at fastball location. (This time, since we split the pitches into those from left- and right-handed pitchers, we used a 20-game rolling average.)

Of course, with the relatively small sample size, the patterns bounce around quite a bit, but overall there is a clear trend; when Shaw had just come up, he saw inside pitches, but after there was a scouting report on him, he saw more outside.

Overall, this suggests (but doesn’t prove) that Shaw’s hot streaks may have been at least partially fueled by pitchers’ unfamiliarity with him, and that as he sees fewer pitches in his favorite locations he may revert back to the batter we saw in AAA – one with decent on-base skills, but little power. On the other hand, during Shaw’s second hot streak, in mid-September, he was still seeing many outside pitches, suggesting that he may be able to adjust after all; and there is even a hint that in the past few games pitchers may have been giving up on pitching him low and outside, and testing other locations.

We would prefer to see a batter who is more consistent in the face of pitchers’ adjustments. Going forward, Shaw is not by any means a sure thing. But he certainly has earned a chance to compete for starter at first or third in 2016.

Ian York has written about Xander Bogaerts, Rich Hill, Joe Kelly’s approach in certain counts, theeffect of better bullpens on offensive strategy, Rick Porcello’s resurgenceMatt Barnes’ first start, the much improved Jackie Bradley Jr., and Wade Davis.

Follow Ian on Twitter @iayork.

Check out Brandon Magee’s Greenville Drive offensive review and Tom Wright’s elimination article about the Seattle Mariners.

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