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The Divergent Travis Shaw

Considering that you’re reading an amateur post on a website dedicated to in-depth baseball analysis, I probably need not remind you that the Brewers are exceeding expectations this year. Thanks to offensive contributions from Erics Thames and Sogard, as well as improved pitching from the likes of Jimmy Nelson, Chase Anderson, and Corey Knebel, Milwaukee is riding a modest +6 run differential to an even more modest half-game lead over the second place Cubs in the NL Central. One Brewer that seems to be slightly less talked-about than those listed above is third baseman Travis Shaw.

Shaw joined the Brewers last offseason as the main piece in a trade that sent reliever Tyler Thornburg to the Red Sox, and through 66 games this year he is outpacing his career 162-game WAR average by almost a win and a half (3.7 WAR/162 vs. 2.3), due mostly to increases in all three slash stats (.288/.343/.535 vs. a career .250/.313/.441), and a subsequent rise in wRC+. Now, those numbers aren’t exactly eye-popping, and Shaw has shown that he can be productive over 60ish-game spans in the past, but as someone interested in marginal-to-average players, I wanted to believe that he was making some sort of leap offensively. Unfortunately, when taking a closer look at his plate-discipline stats, I noticed something that might hint at a coming regression.

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Shaw’s F-Strike%, or First Pitch Strike Percentage currently sits at 47.7% (league average is 60.3%), which is good for the lowest rate among all qualified hitters and about two percentage points below second-lowest. This could be the result of luck, facing particularly wild pitchers, or the reputation he carries as the Mayor of Ding Dong City. Two things that certainly help keep his rate in check are career lows in both O-Swing% (percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone) and Swing% (percentage of swings on all pitches), shown below.

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Regardless of the cause, it is of course beneficial to start at-bats 1-0 rather than 0-1 (although apparently not as crucial as what happens after 1-1 counts). What’s interesting about Shaw in this case is that he’s hitting like Aaron Judge (.463 wOBA) through 1-0 counts and like JJ Hardy (.245 wOBA) through 0-1 counts. Also of note, his walk rate after receiving a first-pitch strike plummets from a below-average 7.4% down to 0.8%, which is the 6th-worst rate among 131 hitters. These splits are based on relatively small samples (148 PA and 118 PA for 1-0 and 0-1, respectively), but I think the difference is stark enough to warrant some doubt for him sustaining his current output. Below is a table showing the league leaders in differential between Through-1-0-Count wOBA and Through-0-1-Count wOBA.

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Shaw ranks sixth. This to me indicates that pitchers have a lot to gain from attacking him early; but that’s obvious. In the vast majority of cases, pitchers have no desire to start at-bats 1-0. What I’m saying is that once Shaw’s F-Strike% starts to creep towards league average and his JJ Hardy-ish at bats become more common, we might start seeing results that resemble his career averages. In other words, the Mayor of Ding Dong City’s third term has gotten off to a promising start, but a dip in approval ratings may be in his future