In 2013, Travis Shaw – who’d spent his entire college career at third base – sought to alter his identity. While his first full pro season in 2012 had shown enormous promise, with Shaw hitting .287/.397/.517 between High A Salem and Double A Portland, he believed that something had to change in order to improve his chances of forcing a path through the Red Sox farm system to Fenway Park.
Given that he’d been moved from third to first by the Red Sox, Shaw believed that he had to hit like a first baseman if he wanted to arrive in the big leagues at that position. He needed to show that, more than just a gap-to-gap hitter who could stay inside the ball and potentially pepper the Green Monster with his lefthanded swing, he could hit homers by the dozen.
The result? A yearlong disaster in Double A Portland, where Shaw hit .221/.342/.394 with 16 homers.
“It just didn’t work. It didn’t work for me,” said Shaw. “Once you go through failure, you kind of realize, ‘I can’t do that. It’s not who I am.’ I knew that wasn’t who I was. I got caught up, thought if I hit 30 home runs, 35 home runs, I would get to the big leagues quicker. That’s just not who I am. I feel like I’m more of a 20-25 guy with a lot of doubles potential. … I have a profile of what I think I need to be more than what a first baseman is.”
Ironically, in de-emphasizing what he thought a first baseman needed to do, Shaw positioned himself to advance and to look increasingly like a compelling option at that position – particularly given the shifting norms associated with it.
The overall decline in offense has made the 30-homer first baseman a rarity. In 2015, there were just six such players (Jose Abreu, Chris Davis, Paul Goldschmidt, Albert Pujols, Anthony Rizzo, and Mark Teixeira) – down considerably from the record dozen first basemen who cleared the fences in 1997.
On average, teams received 26.7 homers from their first basemen in 2015 – a massive 20.3 percent jump from the 2014 season, but a reversal of five straight years of declining home run totals and slugging percentages for first basemen. While last year represented something of a bounceback for power hitting first basemen, there’s little question that the broader trends of the prior half-decade created something of a redefinition of what a first baseman is supposed to be. Shaw can look to someone like Eric Hosmer – who hit .297/.363/.459 with 18 homers while winning a Gold Glove for the champion Royals – as the sort of player he’d like to emulate.
“If you’re a guy like in my situation, I’m a more athletic first baseman than most people give me credit for. If you model somebody, Hosmer is a good guy to go after right now,” said Shaw. “Ever since steroids got out of the game, you look at a guy like Hosmer, that’s the first baseman you want to be. For me, it’s try to be as elite defensively as I can be and then do what I can to still hit in the middle of the order. I want to be considered a middle-of-the-order type of bat, but there’s more to that than just hitting the ball over the fence.”
A year ago, Sox first basemen managed to hit the ball over the fence at an above-average rate. Shaw (13 homers) and Mike Napoli (13) helped the team’s first basemen to swat 29 long balls, the team’s highest total at the position since 1999. Yet for the second straight year, the team’s first base production ended up being abysmal, with a .226/.310/.417 line that had Sox first basemen ranking among the worst in the majors in all three categories.
And so, it is intriguing to see the Red Sox’ depth form with potentially atypical offensive first basemen. Hanley Ramirez is conscientiously working to keep two hands on the bat through the finish of his swing, an effort to emphasize line drive contact over his all-or-nothing 2015 approach that seemed to permit only homers or groundouts.
Shaw is focused on staying inside the ball, trying to hit from center to left-center, and letting his hands react to pitches inside. Sam Travis, who likely will open the year in Pawtucket after hitting .307/.381/.452 but with just nine homers in High A Salem and Double A Portland, consistently hits rockets and led the Arizona Fall League in doubles.
“When I step in the box, I can leave the yard at any time. At the same time, that’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to put together good at-bats. … Hitting hard line drives is what I’m trying to do. I’ve always been told that home runs are accidents,” said Travis. “[The first-base profile is] something I can’t think about.”
Across the board, the Sox appear to be thinking in similar terms as they draft a blueprint for their first base production in 2016. The path forward may or may not feature more home runs from the position, but that issue is secondary to whether the team receives overall improvement from an area that represented a lineup hole for much of last year.
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.