All it took was one year for Richie Shaffer to go from the Tampa Bay Rays’ first baseman of the future to a serious question mark. Touted as an advanced prospect after the Rays selected him in the first round of the 2012 MLB Draft, Shaffer’s first season at full-season ball was a disaster as he managed just a .254/.308/.399 line in 519 plate appearances at High-A Charlotte. His power was conspicuously absent, and his plate approach looked even worse as he struck out 106 times against just 35 walks. After such a season, Shaffer headed to Double-A Montgomery in 2014 facing a critical season. It has only been a few weeks, but Shaffer’s 2014 could not have gone any better so far.
In 62 plate appearances for the Montgomery Biscuits, Shaffer has a .264/.371/.642 line with 4 doubles, 4 homers, 10 RBI, and an impressive 14-9 strikeout to walk ratio in 62 plate appearances. Since going 0 for 4 with a pair of strikeouts on Opening Day, Shaffer has reached base via a hit or walk in every game since. It says something that even amid this hot streak, Shaffer has hit only .264, but the bigger thing to notice is his plate approach. Shaffer’s strikeout rate has actually gone up from 20.4% to 22.6% from 2013 to 2014, but the reason for that has been that he is working deeper counts, resulting in not only walks but better pitches to hit. Shaffer’s homer rate has jumped from 2.3% of his plate appearances to 6.5% and his extra-base hit rate has gone from 8.5% to 16.1%. Even with the 2014 sample size being so small, both of those increases are statistically significant (at least 40 to 1 odds of occurring by chances alone for both). The Rays knew right from the start that Shaffer had big-time power, but for whatever reason, he could not tap into it against professional pitching. Now he finally has started doing so and it is exciting to see.
Richie Shaffer still has work to do in order to sustain this hot start. Even though he has been exponentially more patient at the plate, he still has swung and missed at a few too many breaking pitches outside of the zone, contributing to his relatively low batting average. Shaffer does not need to hit for a high average to be valuable player if he is walking and hitting for power, but advanced pitchers can exploit flaws with pitch recognition and that is the next adjustment that Shaffer will have to make. The other matter is Shaffer’s defense. He does have a strong arm, but at 6’3″, 218 with questionable range at third base, a corner outfield spot or first base could make more sense for him down the line. Shaffer has yet to play a defensive position other than first base in the minor leagues, and we have to think that the Rays will start trying him out at other positions before long. The bottom line, however, is that as long as Shaffer hits the way he is capable, the Rays will find a spot for him.
The Tampa Bay Rays drafted Richie Shaffer imagining he could be a formidable middle-of-the-order bat to complement Evan Longoria. Wil Myers was acquired a year and a half later, and the Rays were gushing over the possibility of having three impressive hitters like Longoria, Myers, and Shaffer on their team for years to come. Shaffer’s development is not done yet, but the dream of him joining Longoria and Myers looks as alive as ever. The way Shaffer is hitting, we may even see the trio together in the Rays’ lineup for a game or two in September.