After Blake Snell got off to a scorching start to begin 2015, it was certainly reasonable to expect that he would pitch for the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2015 Futures Game. Richie Shaffer was another story. Shaffer was the Rays’ first round pick back in 2012, but after leading the Short Season-A Hudson Valley Renegades to a league title with an excellent pro debut, he hasn’t been the same since. In fact, the start of 2015 may have been his lowest point of his entire career.
Former first round picks usually get the benefit of the doubt and get to advance to the next minor league level after just passable results the previous year. The Rays were certainly hoping for more than a .222/.318/.440 line from Richie Shaffer with the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits, but at least he was tapping into his power more often and drawing additional walks. He also played much better after the Southern League All-Star Break, hitting to a .255/.358/.540 line in 191 plate appearances including a .283/.407/.598 line between August and his one game in September.
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The Rays could have come up with reasons why they were justified to promote Shaffer to the Durham Bulls to start 2015. However, they chose to ignore all of them and make a statement to Shaffer instead. It didn’t matter where he had come from–the only thing that made a difference was how he had performed as a professional and he simply had not been good enough. He wasn’t going to sleepwalk his way to the major leagues. The reality was that if Shaffer could not turn himself around, his career was in serious jeopardy. Evaluators questioned whether Shaffer had any sort of future in the majors, and though the Rays had believed in him as long as they could, at a certain point they had to give in to common sense.
Then the season began, and Shaffer’s solid run from the end of 2014 continued for the Biscuits. He hit to a .262/.362/.470 line in 175 plate appearances, drawing a few more walks though his power had taken a step back. The bigger changes were happening below the surface. Shaffer was being more patient, increasing his pitches per plate appearance from 3.64 to 4.16 according to Minor League Central. The latter mark was the eighth best in the Southern League. He was taking more pitches and making contact more frequently. He was making the necessary changes to his approach and finally deserved a promotion.
Shaffer went 4 for 5 with 2 homers in his Triple-A debut, drilled 3 home runs in one game 16 contests later, and still hasn’t stopped hitting. Overall, he has a .306/.394/.694 line in 99 plate appearances, slamming 9 homers compared to 7 in his 175 Double-A PA’s. He is finally looking like the advanced power hitter that the Tampa Bay Rays had envisioned when they had selected him, and people have been clamoring for him to be promoted to the major leagues. Could 2015 have gone any better for Richie Shaffer?
Shaffer still has work to do. His strikeout to walk ratio is a less impressive 27-11 since he arrived at Triple-A, and his pitches per plate appearance are back down to 3.78. He has more adjustments to make against higher-quality breaking pitches before he will be ready for the major leagues and there is no guarantee that he can make them to a large enough extent. Shaffer will have to consistently tap into his power to compensate for the strikeouts that will always be a part of his game, and while his power is coming now, big league pitchers would likely be able to stop that with a steady diet of curveballs and sliders.
However, Richie Shaffer did not need to suddenly evolve into a perfect player to represent the Rays in the Futures Game. The All-Star Game is about how players did this season, but the Futures Game–unsurprisingly– is about tomorrow, which comes with many more questions. What the Rays wanted to see was progress and reason to be optimistic within reason, and Shaffer has delivered that as well as he possibly could have. While his development is not yet complete, the Futures Game will be a time for him to celebrate how far he has come before figuring out how to take the next step.