It was announced today that Travis Shaw will enter the season as the Boston Red Sox’s starting third basemen sending Pablo Sandoval to back-up 3B/1B/pinch-hitting role. So what, you may ask, are the odds of this move actually sticking? Is Shaw a legitimate starter and can he prevail against major league pitching? What is the opportunity cost of not playing Sandoval?
Well, first and foremost, the number one reason Shaw was selected over Sandoval was for his defensive skills. Shaw came up as a first basemen and was considered plus for the position. Shaw played third base in college and has a good glove and throwing arm, but a somewhat limited range which was of course the reason he moved to first base as a professional. Be that as it may, he still has the greater range compared to Sandoval who has ranked as one of the worst defensive third basemen in baseball.
Offensively, Sandoval at only 29 years of age already appears to be post peak. The switch-hitter remains an aggressive, contact-oriented hitter who has struck out around 13% of the time over his career, but who has also swung well above the league average on balls outside the strike zone throughout his career. Of concern, last year was Sandoval’s increasing tendency towards becoming a ground ball hitter which may place a cap on his power production and ability to hit for average. The groundball rate of nearly 50% represents a substantial jump from the previous season and so could be an outlier, but it remains to be seen whether or not it is the beginning of an unwelcome trend. In other words, despite his substantial contract, having the Red Sox play a sub-par defensive 3B with limited power and on-base skills that may be more of a detriment to the team than a positive seems reason enough to at least give another player a chance.
Enter Travis Shaw. As I have mentioned, while he is an adequate defender at third, he still represents a substantial upgrade at the position. On the hitting side of things, Shaw has demonstrated greater power with 18 home runs combined between Triple-A and the Majors. The lefty is a fly-ball hitter who has consistently demonstrated average power, hitting 19 homers in 2012 followed by two straight seasons of twenty-one home run campaigns in 2013 and 2014. Shaw’s power production has been considered average and not the outstanding variety typically coveted for starting first basemen in the majors, but if he can handle third base over the course of the season, his power would profile far better there.
Earlier in his career, Shaw demonstrated above-average control of the strike zone but since reaching AAA has become less passive with walk rates dropping from around 14% to the 8% mark and just 7.3% of his time in the majors last year. Not surprisingly his strikeout rates have gone up correspondingly though they translated well to the majors and have not spiked upwards further though it remains to be seen what they do over a larger sample.
The overall combination of power and plate discipline skill suggests Shaw could be an average regular, capable of hitting in the .250s to .270s with upper-teens to low-twenties homerun power. In other words, if he can achieve that level while playing superior defense to Sandoval he should, in theory, be able to hold off the competition. Any ability on Shaw’s part to reassert some control of the strike zone would only help to further entrench him and reduce the chances of him being a streak hitter. At the moment, Shaw’s skill set does suggest he could endure some peaks and valleys which could potentially reopen the door for the well-paid Sandoval. Fortunately, in most leagues, up until this announcement Shaw was available at a discount or in reserve rounds, making the risk of investment low while providing plenty a good amount of room for possible profit. Considering I selected him as my first pick in the reserve round of AL Tout Wars as a result of purchasing A.J. Reed at auction, I certainly hope so!