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What’s wrong with Bryan Shaw?

“Middle-middle for a pitcher is usually bad-bad.”

At the beginning of 2016, Bryan Shaw was pitching for the eventual American League Champion Cleveland Indians. Through his first four outings he gave up nine runs over 313 innings, which amounted to a 24.30 ERA. In his remaining 6313 innings, Shaw gave up 17 runs total for a 2.13 ERA. His season total was a 3.24 ERA in 6623 innings. The point: reliever seasons are weird and fickle and can be ruined by just a small stretch of bad games.

Fast forward to 2018 and Bryan Shaw has gone from being one of the prized free-agent members of the new Rockies Super Bullpen to the pitcher Rockies fans least want to see jogging in from the bullpen in a close game. Before Sunday’s game, Rockies manager Bud Black said “At no other point in his career has he had to go through this for this extent of time.”

Bryan Shaw, 2018

Season 35 32 44 30 25 16 31 7 7.03 0.385 8.7 51.0%
Through May 18 25 22.1 21 11 11 11 26 3 4.43 0.333 10.5 75.5%
Since May 19 10 9.2 23 19 14 5 5 4 13.03 0.463 4.7 40.2%
Through June 10, 2018 FanGraphs

Through the season’s first quarter, Shaw was more or less what the Rockies signed him to be. He was allowing a few more base runners than he had in previous years, but the results were there. Unfortunately, the last 10 games have been particularly painful.

The underlying factors paint a pretty grim picture as well. Indicators like batting average on balls in play (BABIP), strikeout rate (K/9), and strand rate (LOB%) are important for any pitcher, but especially for relief pitchers who deal in such small sample sizes. The average LOB% across baseball floats around 70-72%; Bryan Shaw’s season LOB% is 51.0%, and it’s 40.2% since May 19. That, coupled with his .463 BABIP over his last 10 appearances (average is about .300) and a 26.2% HR/FB (his career average is 11.2%) and one might reasonably conclude that Shaw has been unlucky.

There’s more than just bad luck happening here, though. Statcast data show he’s allowed 13 barrels already in 2018, nearly triple his total (5) from last year. His average exit velocity allowed is up and his expected weighted on-base-average (xwOBA) is an astronomical .397—not far off from his .406 actual wOBA.

Why is he getting hit so hard? Plate discipline numbers show more of Shaw’s pitches are out of the zone than ever before and players are chasing them less than ever before. For a pitcher that relies on movement from a cutter/slider combo to get ahead of hitters, this is bad news. If a batter doesn’t chase pitches outside the strikezone, the pitcher ends up behind in the count and needs to try to catch more of the plate to try to earn a strike. As Black put it,“Middle-middle for a pitcher is usually bad-bad.”

Consider the following heat maps. The first shows Shaw’s 2017 season, one which more or less corresponds to his career averages. The second one shows his 2018 season. Both are from the pitcher’s point of view.

Bryan Shaw 2017 Heat Map FanGraphs
Bryan Shaw 2018 Heat Map FanGraphs

Pay attention to that bottom left corner. That's where most of Shaw's sliders end up. In the past, he's been able to nail that sweet spot that's still a strike without being something hitters can do much with. This year, more of those pitches are ending up outside the strikezone, which is forcing Shaw to work more towards the center of the zone.

Clearly the Rockies are aware of this issue and haven't considered it enough of a problem to remove Shaw from high leverage situations. With the Rockies still waiting for Adam Ottavino to return from the DL, the bullpen remains precariously thin. And yet, Shaw continues to struggle.

As the team's playoff odds continue to tumble, the Rockies cannot afford to give away so many games late. Shaw came into this season as a major cog in the bullpen, but until he can figure out how to turn more of those borderline sliders and cutters into strikes, and reveal this stretch of bad games as the 2018 anomaly, Bud Black needs to move him down in the pecking order.