Jays From the Couch takes a look at the type of fortune Blue Jays’ Devon Travis has been experiencing so far this season.
Throughout the Jays rough start to 2017, bad luck has been a recurring theme. We can see it with our eyes (what seemed like a run-scoring double by Kendrys Morales on Sunday was hit so well that it became a non-run-scoring ground-rule double) and we can see it in the statistics (hitters are running below-average BABIP and HR/FB%, while pitchers are running above-average BABIP and HR/FB%). I’ve mentioned bad luck in my posts countless times already. And yet, it might surprise you to know that I’m trying very hard not to overuse the term. Shouting bad luck at any issue is the fastest way to make the term meaningless. Ultimately, it’s best to be honest in each situation. Sometimes a batter or pitcher are doing everything right, with bad luck the only thing responsible for poor results. But there are certainly times when a batter or pitcher is just playing poorly.
All that said, Devon Travis seems to be the unluckiest batter in the MLB so far this season. Literally.
Travis’ 2017 hitting results are terrible so far
Compared to 2015-16, Devon Travis is hitting less than half as many base hits, getting almost one-third as many extra bases and producing half as many runs per at-bat. While he generated 18% more offensive runs than the average MLB player in 2015-16, he has produced 96% less offensive runs than the average player in 2017.
However, his fundamentals appear to be nearly identical to 2015-16…
Travis is walking and striking out at the same rates he always has. According to Statcast’s expected batting average and weighted on-base average, he is generating hit- and run-producing contact at similar rates to the past two seasons. According to Fangraphs batted ball data (based on data from Baseball Info Solutions), Travis is hitting liners, grounders and flies at the exact same rates he always has and making soft, medium and hard contact at the same rates he always has.
As one would expect, there are a few areas of change. On a positive note, he is hitting much fewer infield fly balls (pop-ups). He also seems to be hitting towards the opposite field less, with more of his batted balls going towards centre field and the pull side. This change doesn’t seem like a glaring reason for his significant downturn in results. In fact, in his career, he has generally produced better results when pulling the ball (192 wRC+) than going opposite field (121 wRC+).
His plate discipline (based on data from Baseball Info Solutions) is also an area where any change has generally been positive. He is swinging at fewer pitches outside the strike zone, swinging at more pitches inside the strike zone and getting behind after one pitch a lot less often. While he is making a little less contact when he swings at outside-the-zone pitches, he is making the same amount of contact on swings at inside-the-zone pitches.
Travis is also swinging and missing at the same rate he always has. This fact compelled me to look at the aforementioned swing and contact data in a slightly different way than Fangraphs presents it. I broke down his experiences with pitches outside and inside the strike zone, respectively, based on whether he i) swung and missed, ii) swung and made contact or iii) took the pitch. [Technical note: For example, to calculate O-Swing/Miss%, I multiplied O-Swing% by (1 – O-Contact%). This gives me the percentage of outside pitches that Travis swung at and missed.]
It seems that, on outside pitches, Travis is neither making as much contact or swinging and missing as much as he used to. Instead, he seems to be taking more of these outside pitches. This seems like a good idea. The strike zone is usually where all the good pitches hang out. And, what’s Travis doing on those pitches in the strike zone? Taking less of them, while swinging at more. Sounds good to me.
…and his luck stats are going off like alarm bells!
Devon Travis’ BABIP and HR/FB% have both fallen off a cliff. His BABIP is second-lowest in the MLB, while his HR/FB% is 33rd-lowest (out of 184 qualified batters). Statcast’s luck measures bear out the exact same thing. Among 249 batters with 50+ AB this season, Travis has the highest xBA-BA and xwOBA-wOBA in the MLB. Fantasy baseball enthusiasts would call Travis the ultimate buy-low opportunity. A player whose fantasy owners (and team’s fans) are getting impatient with, but who seems to be doing everything right on his end.
So, he’s walking and striking out just as much as he ever did, while making very similar contact. His improved ability to take pitches outside the zone is helping him get ahead early on counts a bit more than he typically has, which should be paying dividends but isn’t. He’s hitting fewer pop-ups, which are arguably the least-productive types of batted balls. As a bonus, his defensive production hasn’t skipped a beat (UZR/150 of 3.1 in 2017 vs 3.5 in 2015-16). Truth be told, I’m even more optimistic about Travis now than I was before I wrote this post. I would legitimately not be surprised if he ended up with a career year when all is said and done. At the very least, I expect his results stats (AVG, ISO, wOBA, wRC+) from May to September to look just as good as we expected them to be before the season started.
*Featured Image Credit: Bliss Photography – UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.