Devon Travis Wants to Be the Rookie of the Year

Let’s reflect on the FanGraphs staff predictions, shall we? Seems like a great idea for the 28th of April. Every single voter selected the Nationals to win the National League East. Okay, great start. Taijuan Walker got the most votes for the American League Rookie of the Year, and his ERA’s almost 7. Daniel Norris also got some meaningful support. Devon Travis got half as many votes as Norris did. So the best you could say is that Travis at least got his name picked by a few people. I bring this up because, as silly as it is to be thinking about awards in the season’s first month, right now Travis ranks third in baseball in wRC+. Perhaps more shocking, Travis ranks fourth in baseball in isolated power. The Blue Jays decided to start Travis out of the gate even though he never spent a day at the highest level of the minors. All he’s done is out-hit the scorching-hot Nelson Cruz.

And this is a Toronto second baseman we’re talking about. Certainly, it’s not like the position is cursed. There’ve been good second basemen in Toronto before, and there’ll be good second basemen in Toronto again, after the Travis days are over. But the Blue Jays are the reason you even recognize the name Ryan Goins. Devon Travis isn’t Ryan Goins. It’s not quite clear what Devon Travis is, but one answer seems to be “surprisingly powerful.”

Some quick history. Blue Jays at second base, by year:

  • 2010: 75 wRC+
  • 2011: 71
  • 2012: 77
  • 2013: 48
  • 2014: 76

The last five years, they’ve averaged a 70 wRC+, ranking worst in the AL and second-worst in the majors. Blue Jays second basemen have been worth a combined 0.2 WAR, meaning there’ve been five years of replacement-level production, more or less. Some seemingly decent players disappointed. Some seemingly less-decent players played up to their abilities. Devon Travis represents the end of this ugliness. While he’s definitely not this good, he’s just as definitely not that bad.

If you’ve watched Travis over the course of the month, you’ve probably come to believe in him. Everyone might have a different point at which things clicked, but for me, it was about a pair of home runs. The first of them:

The second of them:

According to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, those homers, hit a few days apart, each went nearly 430 feet. They were hit out to center field, leaving the bat well north of 100 miles per hour. These are by no means unusual home runs, but they’re usually hit by pretty strong players. Travis hit a pair of them within a week. The complete list of players with multiple such home runs from 2014:

That’s not beautiful, inarguable, scientific analysis, but it’s a starting point. Devon Travis has hit some big-boy home runs. He’s also hit some other home runs. He’s shown an above-average ability to hit the ball hard, and while his season results already suggest as much, we also now have the benefit of some partial StatCast. StatCast hasn’t captured every ball in play, and the numbers might still contain some errors here and there, but we can make use of what we have, caveats acknowledged. What do we have?

At the moment, 146 players have hit at least 30 balls that’ve been captured by StatCast. On average, they’ve hit the ball 88.5 miles per hour. Travis has averaged 91.6 miles per hour, 30th in the sample and just short of one standard deviation above the mean. Travis ranks in second place among second basemen and third place among middle infielders, and I should note StatCast has missed three of his six dingers. Some averages of note: Nelson Cruz has averaged 91.7 miles per hour. Mike Trout, 91.4.

Similarly, about 23% of all balls in play to date have been hit at at least 100 miles per hour. For Travis, out of those hits recorded, he’s at 38%, tied with Cruz for 14th. Travis doesn’t have Cruz’s batted-ball-velocity upside, but he’s matched the consistency. The top of this list is littered with the names of some of the strongest and most productive hitters in the league. Travis quite obviously doesn’t hit the ball as hard as Giancarlo Stanton, but he does seem to hit the ball hard enough with frequency, which is probably more important. Stanton has more power than he needs. Travis’ power appears more than sufficient.

A pitch thrown to Travis Monday night by Joe Kelly:

travis-kelly

The pitch was an 0-and-2 fastball on the inside corner at 98 miles per hour. Granted, the pitch was supposed to be off the outer edge, so there was a location mistake, but the pitch was what the pitch was. This is what Travis did:

travis-lf

You’ve already seen Travis do this, in one of the highlight clips embedded above:

travis-cf

And then, Travis has also done this. This didn’t leave the yard, but it did come two feet away:

travis-rf

Devon Travis has hit with power to left, he’s hit with power to center, and he’s even hit with some power to right. This isn’t the only case where he’s hit a ball the other way over an outfielder’s head. So, you can pick whichever encouraging sign you like. Decent power to all fields? Consistent ability to hit the ball hard? Demonstrated ability to turn around on a fastball pushing triple digits in a pitcher-friendly count? You might also be interested to know that Travis has a contact rate of 85%. When you have a guy with a wRC+ over 200, of course it’s going to be hard to find numbers that look bad. But Travis has hit the ball both hard and often, which is a fairly uncommon thing.

Adjustments will come, and numbers will change. Travis seems to like the ball over the inner half, so maybe pitchers will start working him away. Maybe he’ll flail at a few more low-away sliders. Perhaps the competition will get tougher, or perhaps this has somehow all been a fluke. The StatCast data is new, and we don’t know at what point it becomes reasonably reliable. But, a month ago, Travis was just a 5’9 second baseman with zero at-bats in Triple-A. He’s still all those things, but now he’s also other things.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Jon Roegele
7 years ago

Nicely done, Jeff. This actually reminds me of a study I wanted to run!