When the Rays selected Clemson third baseman Richie Shaffer with their first round pick in the the 2012 MLB Draft it went squarely against the draft strategy they were planning to carry out entering the day. When Shaffer slipped to them, though, he was just too good for them to pass up. Instead of being a high-upside player coming out of high school, Shaffer was a polished college bat. He was far from a five-tool player and came with his inherent flaws. But he was also considered by many to be the best college hitter in the draft and be right up there for the most usable power as well, and the Rays decided his abilities outweighed his limitations. The Rays set themselves up for criticism as to why they deviated from their typical strategy if Shaffer did not develop as expected. However, they believed in his talents and felt confident that they were getting the best value available at that point in the draft. A couple months into Shaffer’s first full professional season, though, that determination made by the Rays did not look true at all.
Shaffere delivered a solid pro debut at Short Season-A Hudson Valley in 2012, managing a .308/.406/.487 line with 5 doubles, 4 homers, and 26 RBI in 138 plate appearances. He didn’t hit for a ton of power, but he hit for a high average and showed solid plate discipline and certainly met expectations even if he didn’t blow them away. But his performance at High-A Charlotte for the first three months of 2013 left considerably more to be desired. Through July 1st, Shaffer has just a .240/.294/.370 line with 17 doubles, 5 homers, and 40 RBI, striking out 63 times while drawing just 18 walks. Shaffer was touted for his mature approach at the plate coming out of college but was instead up at the plate hacking, getting fooled by mediocre breaking balls and chasing fastballs out of the zone. Even when he did run into mistakes, he was tentative and missed plenty of opportunities. The lack of patience sapped his power and crescendoed his frustration. Simply put, he was pressing. That much was clear to Stone Crabs manager Brady Williams.
"“Early in the year, it looked to me like he was pressing a little bit, trying to show everybody who he is and all that kind of stuff. And he finally started to understand to just go out there and play, and take what’s given to him.”"
Shaffer just let the pressure of being a first round pick get to him. He made himself believe that the Rays expected immediate results and kept losing who he was as a baseball player as he tried to hard to succeed. Shaffer just had to find a way to relax. Since his off-day on July 2nd after an 0-for-4 on July 1st, that is exactly what he has done. In his 14 games and 62 plate appearances since then, Shaffer has managed a .352/.535/.500 line with 5 doubles, 1 homer, 8 RBI, and most importantly, an 8-7 strikeout to walk ratio. His power still isn’t coming along, but he has refused to expand his zone and found plenty of success because of that. And if he keeps seeing the ball as well as he is right now, it won’t be long before the power surfaces in earnest as well.
Shaffer’s numbers on the season look a little bit better now. He has a .259/.318/.392 line with 22 doubles, 6 homers, and 48 RBI in 85 games and 355 plate appearances. Those are still disappointing, but certainly a major step up from where they were just a couple of weeks ago. What those numbers don’t tell you, though, is how Shaffer managed to persevere through his extended slump and come out a better player because of it.
"“I think it was honestly good for me to experience a little failure, because up until then, I hadn’t really experienced a whole lot of prolonged failure,” Shaffer said. “I struggled a bit in the early weeks and months, and you just have to work through some adversity, stay optimistic and trust your talent.”"
How many top prospects have come up to the major leagues with plenty of talent yet have let the pressure get to them and seen their careers come apart because of it? In a way, Richie Shaffer got lucky–his wake-up call has come way down in High-A. This hot streak will end and more slumps will come along. But now that Shaffer knows that he can get through failure, that next slump will be just a small bump in the road on his journey to the major leagues. The Rays drafted Shaffer for the talent that gives him the ability to be a star first baseman or right fielder in the major leagues in a few years. The added bonus of him being a college player, however, is that he has the maturity to survive the ups and downs of professional baseball and come out stronger because of it. Richie Shaffer knows now more than ever that he has what it takes to be a great major league player in two or three years. His timidity is gone and his talent is standing our more and more. This is the player that the Rays chose to select with their first round pick in the 2012 MLB Draft. And no matter what happens from here, they have no regrets.