Travis Jankowski Has Carved Out a Role With the Rangers

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Travis Jankowski is enjoying a career-best season with the Texas Rangers. Playing a platoon role on a first-place team, the 32-year-old left-handed-hitting outfielder is slashing .319/.407/.405 with a 133 wRC+ in 190 plate appearances. Speed and defense are his calling cards. Jankowski has swiped 15 bags in 16 attempts, and racked up five Defensive Runs Saved and four Outs Above Average while seeing time at all three fly-chaser positions.

His track record coming into the 2023 campaign was somewhat spotty. Drafted 44th overall in 2012 by San Diego out of Stony Brook, he spent 2015-19 with the Padres, then bounced from the Reds to the Phillies to the Mets to the Mariners before joining the Rangers this past January. Prior to inking a free agent deal with the Chris Young-constructed club, his cumulative hit total was 252, while his wRC+ over 1,215 plate appearances was an unbecoming 77. By and large, he’d been a spare part whose performance hadn’t merited consistent playing time.

A confluence of health and the right opportunity has helped fuel the Lancaster, Pennsylvania native’s breakthrough.

“It’s been finding a good spot with a great manager and a great lineup,” Jankowski explained when the Rangers visited Boston earlier this month. “I’ve been able to carve out a role, and a big part of that is being comfortable. Nine seasons in, I know what to expect at the big league level. Beyond that, it’s just clicking for me right now.”

Jankowski went on to cite a trio of injuries, two of which followed the only years in which he’s logged 300-plus plate appearances. In 2017, he suffered a broken foot; in 2019, he broke a wrist. Last season included an ill-timed visit to the IL as well. The speedster broke a knuckle in late May, then wasn’t able to find firm footing after rejoining the Mets in mid-July. He was subsequently designated for assignment, claimed off waivers by the Mariners, DFA’d again, and then reclaimed by the Mets, who sent him to Triple-A. As Jankowski explained, “Coming back from an injury mid-season is pretty tough.”

Seven weeks after the Rangers promoted Chris Young to Executive Vice President and General Manager, the Princeton graduate and erstwhile big-league hurler shrewdly signed Jankowski to a one-year, $1.25 million contract. For the player, coming to Texas made a lot of sense.

“I saw the moves they were making and knew the direction they wanted to go in,” said Jankowski. “That was a huge selling point for me. Seeing Nathan Eovaldi and Jacob deGrom sign, and Corey Seager and Marcus Semien having come over last year, I knew they were out there trying to win. Bruce Bochy was here as well, and for me an old-school manager is a good thing. If you look at the type of player I am analytically… I don’t think that’s the greatest definition of who I am. Speed off the bench and being a good defensive outfielder is what’s kept me around the big leagues, and an old-school manager can see the value in that more than a computer can.”

That Jankowski hit his only home run of the season the day before I spoke to him at Fenway Park qualifies as an odd coincidence. Going deep has never been a big part his game — the July 3 dinger was just his 10th as a big leaguer — and he’s pleased to be on a team where that isn’t an expectation.

“The hitting coaches here aren’t trying to turn guys into something they’re not,” explained Jankowski. “I’m not a power guy. I never have been, and I don’t think I ever will be. I actually told them on day one, ‘Listen, if you want me to hit 15-20 home runs this year, that’s not the player I am.’ They’re OK with that. The Padres wanted me to try to hit for some more power in 2017 — that was the year I got hurt a few weeks into the season — but it didn’t correlate well. I think I had three home runs in spring training, but my strikeouts probably tripled, so it just wasn’t a good risk-reward for me.”

Six years later, simply being himself is working just fine. The long-maned outfielder has never been better.

“Here, it’s just, ‘Hey, be you. It’s why you’re in the big leagues,’” Jankowski said. “I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve been having success this year. Along with being healthy and having found a good niche, I’m just focusing on doing what I do best. Again, that’s providing speed and playing good defense. It’s been going well.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Carson Kahla
8 months ago

When the Rangers left Arizona and came back to Arlington to play a few exhibition games before the season started they told Travis he wasn’t gonna make the team but they wanted him to stick around and go to AAA. Leody ended up not being ready for opening day so Travis made the team and he hasn’t looked back