By Daniel Kramer
BOSTON -- Stroll through the home Fenway Park clubhouse, and the uncertainty of Pablo Sandoval has naturally dissipated since the $95 million third baseman underwent season-ending shoulder surgery.
After Sandoval's career-worst season in 2015, the first in a five-year deal he signed with the Red Sox, the conversation in Boston has shifted from the uninsured contract with cash the team is essentially eating to Sandoval's very capable replacement -- Travis Shaw, who sits on the All-Star ballot.
Seven weeks into his first full MLB season, Shaw hovers among the leaders in just about every major hitting category among American League batters. He's tied for ninth among position players in FanGraphs' wins above replacement (1.7) and weighted runs created (32), 36th in batting (.303), second in batting average in balls in play (.390), tied for sixth in RBIs (33) and 16th in OPS (.884).
Shaw has scored and/or driven in 61 of Boston's Major League-leading 281 runs scored, yet he hasn't quite drawn mainstream attention given that he shares a clubhouse with some of the top young superstars in the game, such as Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr., whose 29-game hit streak ended Thursday.
The reserved Shaw prefers it that way.
"I try to block it out as much as I can just because you don't want to get caught up in that," Shaw told Sports on Earth. "You want to continue to push. I consider myself still pretty much unproven, and there's still a long way to go. For me, new player, first full season in the big leagues, still trying to prove as much as I can."
Shaw is earning a hair above the MLB minimum -- a little more than a half-million dollars -- but he never let that get in the way of his quest to seize the starting job despite the financial commitments tied to Sandoval. That was thanks in large part to the conviction he received from manager John Farrell, who told reporters midway through Spring Training that Shaw deserved regular at-bats, and not just as a corner utility player.
"John came out and said something to the media that it was kind of an open competition [at third base] from there on out," said Shaw, who was named the Opening Day starter four days before the regular season. "And for me, I kind of bought into what he said. I wasn't going to take that lightly, and that's when I tried to continue to keep my foot on the gas pedal, I guess you'd say."
Shaw was called up from Triple-A five times last year, all to fill immediate personnel needs, but he primarily played at first after the Red Sox traded Mike Napoli in early August. Shaw's final callup came Aug. 1, but at the time, not many forecasted it would be permanent.
He hit .275 with 13 homers and 36 RBIs in those final two months, playing only five of 56 games at third base. Shaw also flashed a swing that looked tailor-made for Fenway Park, hitting .333 in 74 plate appearances against the pesky shift that has become the prevalent -- and successful -- method to defend left-handed hitters.
"Everybody overlooked him, and I think once he got his chance, you can't really overlook it," said Betts, who played alongside Shaw in the Minors and now shares a spot with him in the everyday Red Sox lineup. "He's not flashy. He's stayed under the radar. That's just the kind of personality he has -- an under-the-radar type of person. He'll hurt you."
Shaw was a ninth-round pick in the 2011 Draft who never ranked higher than No. 17 among Red Sox prospects, per MLB Pipeline. The son of 12-year big league veteran pitcher Jeff Shaw, Travis played three years at Kent State before pursuing the pros, but didn't possess the flashy panache that scouts drool over. In fact, he's never hit above the .299 clip he sits at through 47 games this year.
"I wasn't one of those superstar prospects," Shaw said. "I wasn't one of the uber-prospects, the can't-miss guys. I've had to work hard and grind through the Minor Leagues to get here. That's kind of the mindset I've taken to each level I've gotten at, to try to prove that I belong here, and I still feel like I'm in that mindset right now to prove that I'm an everyday, middle-of-the-order-type player for a big league club."
Like any prospect would be in watching their big league club make a financial commitment to an external commodity, Shaw was disappointed when the Sox signed Sandoval. But he ultimately kept things in perspective.
"When somebody does make that commitment, if it doesn't end up being with the team you're with now, you're still auditioning for the 29 other clubs out there," Shaw said.
His rapid ascent has been a pleasant surprise for a Red Sox team that hasn't had a reliable third baseman with a sustained long-term scope since Kevin Youkilis, who was traded midway through the 2012 season. Once-heralded prospect Will Middlebrooks has come and gone, and Sandoval's status -- besides the contract through 2019 -- remains a question.
Yet here sits Shaw, or as the fans at Fenway call him "The Mayor of Ding Dong City" -- a moniker coined by a Barstool Sports blog that took off in Boston. In keeping with the nickname, since his final callup, Shaw has hit more ding dongs (19) than any Boston batter not named David Ortiz, the potential Hall of Famer who has anchored three World Series-winning Red Sox teams.
Ortiz, riding his farewell tour, is likely headed to one final All-Star Game with the gaudy numbers he's putting up at age 40. He's one of nine Red Sox on the ballot, including Shaw, who is often reserved but couldn't help but grin when discussing the prospect of an appearance at the Midsummer Classic.
"It'd be unbelievable," Shaw said. "I honestly don't know what that feeling would be like if that ever happened. It's what everybody strives for. You never know."
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Daniel Kramer is a reporter for MLB.com and contributor to Sports on Earth, based in Denver.