MILWAUKEE — It’s been a season of unexpected outcomes for the Brewers, and one of those outcomes has certainly been the emergence of Travis Shaw as a force in Milwaukee’s lineup.
Shaw, who was part of the trade that sent Tyler Thornburg to the Red Sox in December, is in just his second full year in the majors but is having the kind of breakout season he always knew was possible.
Going into Wednesday, Shaw is hitting .274/.351/.527 with 29 home runs — a total he didn’t come close to hitting over the course of two seasons in Boston. What’s been the difference? Opportunity and consistency.
“I get a chance to play everyday against righties and lefties,” Shaw said. “[The Brewers] kind of instilled in me in spring training that I was going to be an everyday guy here, so that helps you relax a little bit. Then I was able to get into a pretty good groove in April and it kind of went from there.
“I had a good first half [in Boston] and then lost some playing time and I started struggling,” Shaw said. “It just snowballed from there and obviously when you lose your job and then when they trade you, there’s a huge motivation factor that went into this offseason to kind of prove them wrong. … Everybody is competitive, and when someone tells you can’t do something, you want to prove them wrong.”
Losing your job to Pablo Sandoval, who was coming off a season in which he was one of the worst hitters in baseball, will certainly light a fire under you. Shaw began changing his routine almost immediately. The most important change, perhaps, was making an effort to hit fewer fly balls — defying baseball’s usual mindset.
“Everybody is trying to hit fly balls,” Shaw said. “I even went through that last year in the second half of the season. I was trying to lift everything and it just didn’t work. So this offseason, I tried to start hitting balls more on the line when I was doing my hitting stuff and going into spring training.
“My swing felt a little bit more consistent. I felt like it was staying in the zone longer. … I may not be hitting as many groundballs as I think, but I’m trying to hit more groundballs and it’s been working.”
That doesn’t mean his power has gone away. Keeping his swing level and in the zone for quality contact has also led to a surge in home runs. They may not be towering shots, but they’re still reaching the seats.
“I have a more lofty swing, so I’m going to hit a lot of fly balls anyway,” Shaw said. “But if I can think ‘groundball’ it kind of levels out my swing a little bit more.”
Shaw is hitting ground balls 42 percent of the time in 2017, as opposed to just 36 percent of the time in 2016 with the Red Sox. Normally, that would sound like an ideal change for a hitter (2016 Jason Heyward says hello), except that 22 percent of Shaw’s fly balls are going out of the park — way above the 10 percent rate he saw last season.
“He’s really been this solid rock in the middle of the lineup,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said, noting that the team saw a need for another left-handed hitter. “We’ve looked for balance in our lineup going into this season, and he was a big part of what I felt and what we felt would help us score more runs, balance out the lineup, especially in the middle those big run producing spots.
“Travis has been out there a lot. He’s handled left-handed pitching well. … It’s been an all-around good season for him and an important addition for us.”
Not only has this been the best year of Shaw’s short career, but with the highest position fWAR (3.4) on the team he’s been a key reason why the Brewers have outplayed preseason expectations.
“Nobody expected us to be here two games out with two and a half weeks to play,” Shaw said of the Brewers after their series sweep of Chicago. “I think everybody is excited for what could happen down the stretch and everybody is still really focused on trying to catch the Cubs. … Everybody just kept saying we were going to fade all year, and that’s I think where the motivation came in to kind of prove to everybody the first half wasn’t a fluke, that we aren’t going anywhere and we’ve been here all along.”
As the son of longtime major league pitcher Jeff Shaw, Travis often got words of wisdom during his struggles. So what did his dad have to say about his son’s recent success?
“Treat it the exact same way you treat failure. Don’t act like you’ve made it yet,” Shaw said. “This game can humble you just like that. For me there’s still a lot to prove, I haven’t been in the league very long and there’s still a long way to go for me, personally. [There are] goals I want to reach, and that’s a huge motivating factor for me.”
The Brewers are still buzzing from their series weekend sweep of the Cubs, one that Shaw helped orchestrate with his two-run shot at Wrigley on Sunday. That blast helped put Milwaukee just two games out of the NL Central lead. Shaw said that sweep, and the playoff push in general, has the Brewers focused, yet lighthearted.
“The dugout was alive at Wrigley, and the best part of a young team is that young teams forget a lot of things easily. Which can come back to bite you, too, obviously,” he said. “But sometimes when you have a young team like this they keep it fresh and that atmosphere is still there and is super relaxed. The coaching staff just preaches to stay relaxed, and it just fits right into the vibe of this team.”