How Cubs’ first-rounder got more out of ‘dynamic bat’

July 20th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Jordan Bastian’s Cubs Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

CHICAGO -- It is a swing that Maryland’s head baseball coach Matt Swope can still see in his mind. Matt Shaw, then a freshman, stepped into the box in a fall scrimmage against right-hander Sean Burke, who went on to be a third-round Draft pick for the White Sox.

“He hit a ball,” Swope recalled, “it was 96 [mph] up at his eyes and he hit it 10 feet off the ground, off the wall. And I said, ‘Uhh, this kid’s different.’”

The Cubs are counting on it.

The steady success and growth Shaw displayed throughout his three-year career -- culminating in an incredible junior showing this year -- convinced Chicago to use the 13th overall pick in the MLB Draft on the shortstop. He received a slot-value signing bonus of $4,848,500, per Pipeline’s Jim Callis.

And while Shaw hit at an elite rate throughout his entire collegiate career, there were still areas in which he improved during and after a stint with Bourne in the Cape Cod League -- one of the best collegiate summer leagues -- last year. Shaw showed off improved pitch selection, making his power-speed profile even more intriguing.

“It’s just a dynamic bat,” said Dan Kantrovitz, the Cubs’ vice president of scouting. “He displayed the decision-making that he's capable of, the ability to make consistent contact, and then the ability to hit for damage. Typically, when you exhibit those three characteristics, it's a pretty good recipe for success in the future.”

Former big league catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia is an assistant coach for the Bourne Braves in the Cape Cod League and was impressed by Shaw’s drive to learn. The shortstop would pick Saltalamacchia’s brain about game-calling from a catcher’s point of view. They also talked about the differences between hitting in college vs. the pros.

Shaw made a mental shift to begin sitting less on offspeed pitches and honing in on fastball counts and specific zones. Simply put: Just because the shortstop could hit a pitch, that did not mean it was the right one to attack.

“That was a big thing I learned,” Shaw said.

“You have to go with what your strengths are,” Saltalamacchia said. “That’s what a lot of that conversation was about. I didn’t tell him anything that he probably didn’t already know, but I think just giving him some reinforcement was kind of key to helping him be more successful.”

During his 36-game stint in the Cape Cod League, Shaw hit .360/.432/.574 and helped lead Bourne to the championship. In his junior year at Maryland, the shortstop not only hit for power (24 homers), but finished with more walks (43) than strikeouts (42) and saw his on-base percentage jump to .445 from .381 the previous season.

It was the final touch on a collegiate resume that got better each season:

2021: 16.8 K%, 8.4 BB%, .544 SLG, .952 OPS

2022: 15.8 K%, 11.7 BB%, .604 SLG, .986 OPS

2023: 13.2 K%, 13.6 BB%, .697 SLG, 1.142 OPS

“I think the biggest thing from his second to third year was the plate discipline,” Swope said. “He’s a guy that wants to hit. I think that gets him in trouble, because his confidence is so high. He really, truly believes he can hit every pitch. It was just kind of the maturation of allowing the game to come to you a little bit more, as opposed to you having to force the issue, or kind of creating the action.”

Swope saw that confidence play out back in that freshman-year scrimmage.

“That,” said the Terps head coach, “really, right off the bat, was the moment to me when it was like, ‘Oh wow, this kid could be special.’ He’s the best player we’ve ever coached. I’ve been there 12 years. We’ve had big leaguers. At this moment, with his college career, it’s not even close.”