Boston Red Sox: Slumping Travis Shaw frustrated with playing time

Jun 10, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Boston Red Sox third baseman Travis Shaw (47) hits single in the sixth inning against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 10, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Boston Red Sox third baseman Travis Shaw (47) hits single in the sixth inning against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports /

Boston Red Sox third baseman Travis Shaw blames inconsistent playing time on his recent slump, but his manager has a different opinion.

Does a hitter fall into a slump when he isn’t seeing steady plate appearances or is his playing time diminishing because he’s in a slump? It’s a bit like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg, which means there’s likely to be varying opinions on the topic.

That’s what is now happening between Boston Red Sox third baseman Travis Shaw and his manager, John Farrell. They can both agree that the 26-year old has been struggling at the plate lately, but their explanations for this slump are drastically different.

Shaw spent the bulk of the season’s first half as the primary third baseman for the Red Sox. He would occasionally sit against lefties, against whom he has hit a mere .196 with a .633 OPS this season. Farrell also made a habit early in the season of pinch-hitting for Shaw with Chris Young, but that was mostly chalked up as an opportunity to get the lefty-mashing Young off the bench. As the sample of Shaw’s inability to hit lefties grew, his role shifted toward more of a platoon at third base.

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Even as he transitioned into the left-handed half of a platoon, Shaw still managed to start 78 of the team’s first 83 games, over which time he hit .274 with an .801 OPS. Then the Red Sox acquired Aaron Hill in early July to bolster their infield depth and everything changed.

Hill seems like the perfect compliment to Shaw, as a right-handed bat that can handle third base. The veteran infielder is hitting .324 with an .820 OPS against lefties since joining the Red Sox, providing the lineup with a massive upgrade over what Shaw has produced against south paws. Hill’s arrival should have benefited Shaw, as avoiding left-handers that have given him so much grief this season should have been a boon for his overall numbers.

Instead, Shaw’s season has spiraled in the opposite direction. Since Hill’s arrival, Shaw has started 25 of the team’s 37 games and hit .178 with a .627 OPS. His slump has reached the point where he’s now being benched against some right-handed pitchers two. That was the case Friday night in Detroit, marking the second time in the last six games that Shaw has sat with a right-hander on the mound.

An extended slump will frustrate any hitter, but his diminishing playing time has left Shaw feeling helpless in regards to pulling out of it. His timing is off and in his mind, the only way to fix that is to play.

"“My swing feels great in the cage. I need some in-game reps,” Shaw told the Boston Globes Peter Abraham. “That’s the only way I can fix it. It’s hard to do that when you’re playing two or three days a week.”"

He’s exaggerating a bit, but his drop in playing time has been noticeable. Shaw says he was told when Hill was brought in that it wouldn’t change much, but it has, leaving him confused about his role with the team. It’s clear that this has caught him off guard, which has added to his frustrations and derailed his efforts to get back on track at the plate.

Clear to everyone except his manager anyway. Farrell has a different view of what has caused Shaw’s dip in performance.

"“I think he’s probably benefited from being more fresh,” said Farrell. “And yet at the same time there’s a clear-cut pattern how he’s being attacked. I think that’s pretty evident by how pitchers attack, particularly with two strikes.“I can’t say that the lack of reps has been a detriment. The book is out. You know what? Players are always in that counter-adjustment phase and Travis is in that right now.”"

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So which is it? Do we have a clueless manager that is ignoring the concerns of one of his starters by benching him instead of trusting in him to fight his way out of a slump? Or is this a young player that pitchers have figured out, only he’s too stubborn to realize he has to adjust his approach?

With the Red Sox in the thick of a pennant race they can’t afford to stick a player in the lineup that isn’t performing. Yet at the same time, this team is going to need Shaw – at least the version of him we saw through the first few months of the season – if they are going to contend for a playoff spot. It puts the manager in a difficult spot, balancing the goal of winning the game that day with the need to revive the production of a young hitter expected to be a big part of this team’s future.

Farrell is right to bench Shaw against lefties, as we have enough of a sample size this season to show he hasn’t figured them out yet, while Hill gives them an excellent alternative. However, the manager can’t keep toying with Shaw by sitting him against right-handers. He may not be hitting well against anyone right now, but we’ve seen enough of him this year to know he’s capable against right-handed pitching. Put him in a the clearly defined role of a platoon at third base and trust that he’ll right the ship.

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Otherwise, this sporadic playing time could result in Shaw’s season spiraling further down the drain and the Red Sox will risk losing a key part of what has made this the best offense in baseball.