Some writers are suggesting that the Blue Jays’ acquisition of Jonathan Villar marks the end of the “Travis Shaw Experiment”. That would be a mistake.
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The Toronto Blue Jays’ acquisition of Jonathan Villar at the trade deadline was no surprise. Toronto was known to be disappointed by the production they had received from Brandon Drury, Joe Panik and Santiago Espinal. And with Bo Bichette still days (weeks?) away from returning, they needed a better option at shortstop in the interim. Villar had 658 innings at short in 2019, and while his defense was below-average there it was at least acceptable as a band-aid.
But some have taken the Villar acquisition a step further, and suggested that once Bo returns the Blue Jays might choose to replace Travis Shaw with Villar, making Villar the full-time third baseman.
That, in my view, would be a mistake.
First, let’s talk about Villar’s defense. He has only 429 career innings at third, all coming in 2015 and 2016. A long time ago, and in a game far away. And when Jon *did* play third, the results were not attractive. His career DRS/1200 is an ugly -20 (for UZR/150 fans, he is a career -27). Pitchers like Ryu, Anderson, Roark and Stripling are not Verlander-type fireballers – they need a strong infield defense behind them. Shaw is a career +3.3 DRS/1200 (+2.2 UZR/150) at third base – not gold glove, but better than average.
But then there is the question of the bat. Shaw is batting an ugly .213/.293/.337 in 2020, for a 74 wRC+. Not nearly enough production from a third baseman. But Travis has only 99 plate appearances (61 batted ball events), so it behooves us to dig a bit deeper to see if this performance truly reflects his play or whether it is a small sample size anomaly.
There are 235 players with at least 50 BBEs in 2020. Of those, Shaw’s average exit velocity of 92.9 mph is 13th (tied with some fish from Anaheim). His hard-hit percentage of 50.8% is 16th – just ahead of some kid named Guerrero. Both pretty darn good.
Looked at another way – Statcast calculates expected batting averages, on-base percentages and slugging percentages based on the expected outcomes of every ball hit. This effectively shows what a player’s stat line would be with average “luck”. Shaw’s expected stats in 2020 are .268/.345/.457. Basically a 2019 Manny Machado.
Now for the usual caveats. Statcast statistics are, in my opinion, the most advanced that exist in baseball today. But they are not perfect predictors of future performance (no stat is). So while Travis’ expected stats are grounds for optimism, they are no guarantee.
Which begs the question: just how much weight do the Jays put on Statcast measures such as average exit velo and hard-hit%? Well, the FO is not saying – which only makes sense. If they place greater weight on these stats than most teams, it is not to their advantage to broadcast it. But we can find a hint in some of their prior moves
In November 2016, the Jays rushed to sign Kendrys Morales (to the detriment of Edwin Encarnacion, but that is another story). Kendrys was coming off a decent but not uber .263/.327/.468 year with the Royals (111 wRC+). So he was unquestionably good, but not so holy-cow-Batman as to justify Toronto’s enthusiasm? Well, in 2016, of 241 qualified batters, Ken-Mo’s 92.8 mph average exit velo was 6th … and his 49.9% hard hit percentage was tied for third. Coincidence? Let’s continue.
The July 2016 Justin Smoak extension? In 2015, Smoaky’s exit velo was 88th percentile and his hard-hit% was 95th percentile. The Jan 2018 Gruchuk trade? In 2017, The Grinch was 78% and 82% – but his barrels-per-PA% was 98th percentile. The Teoscar acquisition in 2017? Teo’s 2017 Brls/PA% was 98th percentile. Fisher in 2019? The Other Fish’s 2019 exit velo was 96th percentile and his HH% was 85th percentile.
The bottom line
Travis Shaw has had a disappointing season with the bat – so far. But advanced stats point toward a turnaround. And it appears that the Blue Jays’ management places significant weight on those stats. So probably – and hopefully! – the Travis Shaw experiment is not finished quite yet.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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A Jays fan since pre-Series, Jim’s biggest baseball regret is that he did not play hooky with his buddies on 7 Apr 77. But hearing “Fanfare For The Common Man” played from a rooftop on 24 Oct 92 helped him atone.