Let’s Prevent the Inevitable Underrating of Devon Travis by August Fagerstrom August 10, 2016 Let’s peer into the future for a moment. The time: roughly one year from now. I’m hosting my weekly Tuesday chat, and a reader wants to know: who is the most underrated player in baseball? It’s a common question. It’s a question without an answer, but an answer everyone wants to know. Ben Zobrist’s time with the belt has come and gone. It’s no longer Jose Quintana — not after winning last year’s Cy Young Award. Another one of my go-to answers for this question is Mike Trout, and I might still believe that, but I know it’s not what the reader’s looking for. No, they want the star-not-perceived-as-a-star. The guy flying under the radar as one of baseball’s best at his position without the national recognition. They want what Zobrist was in his heyday. What they want is Devon Travis. But they’re not going to get Travis as the answer to that question a year from now, because what I’m here to do now, in the present, is exactly what they don’t want you to do in any movie that involves time travel, like that one with Ashton Kutcher or any one of the dozen Final Destination films. I’m here to do something in the present that changes the future. I’m here to prevent Devon Travis from becoming the most underrated player in baseball, because he deserves to be recognized as one of the best second baseman in baseball already. Travis checks all the boxes of a player doomed to be underrated. The first key of being overlooked as a major leaguer is to be overlooked as a minor leaguer. Check. Travis lasted until the 13th round of the 2012 draft, selected as the 424th pick between Phildrick Llewellyn and Alan Sharkey largely because teams were wary of his 5-foot-9 stature. By 2014, he’d worked his way up to cracking Baseball America’s top-100 prospect list, but even then came in at just 84th, and shortly thereafter was traded from Detroit to Toronto for Anthony Gose, whose own stock was rapidly plummeting. Another key toward being underrated is being around for a little bit before completing a full season. We fall in love with the full-season stat line, even if two half-seasons with 300 plate appearances are the same-sized sample of one season with 600 plate appearances. Though there’s some logic behind the “need to see a full season” line of thinking — a full baseball season is a grind, and in Travis’ case specifically, a major and unorthodox shoulder operation is the reason behind his half seasons and ought not to be ignored — it can seem like sort of a cop-out for discounting a player for arbitrary endpoints. The last key toward being underrated is perhaps the most important. It’s cost guys like Jim Edmonds and Kenny Lofton a fair crack at the Hall of Fame, and it’s probably even cost Mike Trout an MVP award or two. The all-around game is simply not appreciated by the public the way it’s appreciated by our statistical measures of player evaluation. We have a tendency to fall too in love with the eye-popping tools while we overlook the rare players who excel at every facet of the game, if not at an elite level. And Travis fits that mold to a T. I suppose it’s about time we start getting into some numbers. The first question’s easy enough: how good has Devon Travis been? Let’s look at all the second basemen who’ve recorded at least 300 plate appearances since Travis entered the league in 2015 and put them on the same per-plate-appearance scale: Top-Five Second Basemen, 2015-16, Per PA Name PA AVG OBP SLG ISO BB% K% wRC+ BsR/600 Def/600 WAR/600 Devon Travis 487 .304 .351 .499 .195 6.6% 19.1% 130 3.8 10.2 5.8 Jose Altuve 1193 .333 .384 .505 .172 6.8% 9.7% 140 -2.1 3.3 5.2 Jason Kipnis 1117 .295 .360 .468 .174 8.6% 18.4% 126 2.3 6.6 4.9 Ian Kinsler 1171 .296 .345 .455 .159 6.3% 14.4% 117 2.7 7.3 4.4 Daniel Murphy 973 .310 .350 .520 .210 5.5% 8.4% 132 1.4 -2.6 4.3 -Minimum 300 plate appearances Now, of course this isn’t a fair comparison, because Travis has half the plate appearances or fewer than everyone on this list, meaning his numbers have to be regressed far more than the others. But still, we see what Travis has been. He’s been a top-five second baseman, offensively, and a top-five second baseman defensively. The base-running ranks in the top 10, as well. There are no apparent holes in Travis’ game. But again, these numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt, because of the sample. Projections are always better when we’re interested in estimating true-talent level, so let’s turn there. Top-Five Second Basemen by the Projections Name PA AVG OBP SLG ISO BB% K% HR SB wRC+ BsR Fld WAR Jose Altuve 600 .326 .375 .478 .152 6.5% 9.7% 14 34 129 2.5 -1.7 4.5 Matt Carpenter 600 .278 .378 .474 .196 13.1% 18.3% 17 3 130 -1.3 -6.7 3.7 Ian Kinsler 600 .284 .333 .440 .156 6.1% 13.8% 15 12 107 0.6 6.0 3.6 Devon Travis 600 .278 .330 .459 .181 6.6% 18.1% 20 10 110 0.5 4.5 3.5 Robinson Cano 600 .293 .350 .467 .174 7.3% 13.8% 20 3 122 -0.9 -1.5 3.5 SOURCE: ZiPS That’s a bit more like it. Any ranking of second baseman in 2016 without Jose Altuve at the top will raise some eyebrows. After Altuve, though, there’s no clear indication of who’s next. Just missing from this table of five are guys like Kipnis (3.5 projected WAR per 600 PA), Neil Walker (3.4), Dustin Pedroia (3.2) and Zobrist (3.2). But the point is: what relatively little Travis has proven in his career thus far has already done enough to put himself squarely in the mix. Due to his all-around game, you could make the argument for Travis against any second basemen in the game, save for Altuve. He hits the ball to all fields. He doesn’t have a weakness against a particular pitch; he’s one of just 24 batters since the start of last year to have produced at least 1.0 runs above average against fastballs, slider, curveballs and changeups, according to our PITCHf/x pitch type per-100 run values. He makes contact at an above-average rate while hitting for above-average power. While he’s not a prolific base-stealer, he’s been good at taking the extra base and great at avoiding double plays. Each of the three major defensive metrics agree that he’s been an above-average defensive second baseman. If there’s a hole to be found anywhere in Travis’ game, aside from the potential durability concerns, I can’t see it. So let’s not get fooled again. Look past the size — that hasn’t stopped Altuve, Pedroia, or Mookie Betts from turning into stars. Forget the draft pick and prospect list snubbing — that’s all in the past. And don’t worry that Travis doesn’t have an elite tool — his impressively balanced skill set has helped him play like a six-win player since he entered the league and has him already looking like close to a four-win player moving forward. Devon Travis might have all the makings of baseball’s future most-underrated player, but we can keep that from happening by rating him properly from the get-go.