Jays From the Couch argues that Toronto Blue Jays INF, Ryan Goins, should not replace Devon Travis, errors, or not
Devon Travis committed an error at second base Sunday. Obviously, this means he must hit the bench so that Ryan Goins can finally take his place as the best Blue Jays second baseman since Roberto Alomar, according to parts of the Toronto Blue Jays Twitterverse. I’m exaggerating (only slightly), but honestly, I’m not sure why a guy as lovable and hard-working as Travis has to get crapped on every time he makes an error. You know who else makes errors? Every baseball player ever.
Watch the play again. Kiermaier’s grounder was the second hardest hit ball (101mph exit velocity, 47% hit probability) of the game and looked to short-hop Travis. Travis was still able to block the ball, an infielder’s primary goal on hard grounders, and looked like he could have thrown out an average or slower runner. Instead, he was dealing with one of the best base runners in the majors (5.42 BsR per 600 PA since 2014, 18th among 349 players with 600+ PA). Plus, the man who was most negatively affected by the error, Joe Biagini, told Travis not to worry about it after Travis offered his apology.
The general anti-Travis argument is that Goins is a much better defensive second baseman, so a swap of the two would lead to a vast improvement on the field and in the Jays’ ability to win games. Part of my issue with this idea is that anti-Travis individuals seem to forget that while teams play defence about half the time, they play offence the other half. Any discussion on swapping two players should mention their overall ability to help their team win, which is based on contributions they make on both sides of the diamond.
This post is not really going to say anything new. Others have broken down the massive difference in production by the two of them. Yet, it is still somehow necessary. That fact adds to my frustration.
- Is Goins a better defender than Travis? Yes. Literally no one would (or could) make a strong case that this isn’t true.
- Is Travis bad at defence? No, he is not. He has consistently shown himself to be a slightly above-average defender at second base.
- Is Travis a better offensive contributor than Goins? Yes. Offensively, the difference between Devon Travis (career wRC+ of 105) and Ryan Goins (career wRC+ of 60) is slightly larger than the difference between Travis and peak Josh Donaldson (2013-2017 wRC+ of 147).
And, for some historical perspective:
- Travis has two of the Top 10 offensive seasons by a Blue Jays second baseman (in terms of wRC+, among those with 200+ PA).
- Among second basemen, he has the 6th most WAR in Jays history, despite basically playing one full season (670 PA).
- On a per 162 game basis, Travis has the second most WAR (3.5) among all Blue Jays second basemen, after Robbie Alomar. [To be fair, I chose not to count Norberto Martin‘s nine-game cameo for the Jays in 1999, whose defensive abilities resulted in 0.3 WAR for 5.4 WAR per 162.]
My intention isn’t to respond to the Travis hate by hating on Goins. GoGo is great in his role: a defense-first backup infielder. He seems like a nice, hard working guy himself and has been filling in admirably in Tulo’s absence. But he has had his share of chances in the big leagues and hasn’t shown an ability to be a starting middle infielder, much less outplay Devon Travis. Since 2000, 779 players have exceeded the 1006 PA Goins has had in the majors thus far. His wRC+ of 60 stands 764th in that group. So far this season, his offensive production (60 wC+) matches his career average.
Please don’t bring up Travis’ 2017 struggles at the plate. By this point, the fact that he has been epically unlucky this season should be common knowledge for any reasonably engaged Jays fan. Beyond my own recent post, I’ve seen many others mention his league-leading xwOBA – wOBA and xBA – BA in posts and tweets.
Let’s try to quantify the difference between these two players by comparing their ability to create offensive runs and prevent defensive runs at second base. Just to be rigorous, we’ll look at both of the common advanced measures of defensive ability: Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS).
Over their careers, Travis has been the much more productive offensive player. In terms of defence, Goins has many more DRS and a slightly better UZR.
Now, let’s look at these stats on a per-season basis and calculate how many wins separate the two. I start with the assumption that a full season is made up of 600 PA and 1350 innings in the field (in 2016, the average starting second baseman saw roughly that much playing time). Prorating each player’s career numbers over a full season, Travis has generated about 34 more offensive runs per season than Goins. The size of Goins’ run advantage in the field depends on the statistic used. According to UZR, Goins has prevented about five more runs per season than Travis has. According to DRS, Goins has prevented about 18 more runs per season.
In total, when using UZR as our defense stat, Travis has generated roughly 29 more runs per season than Goins. When using DRS, the gap is roughly 16 runs per season. The number of runs per win fluctuates some from year to year, but has remained between nine and ten in recent years. I’ll split the difference and assume that 9.5 runs equal one win. Based on their careers thus far, Devon Travis has been worth about 2-3 wins more than Ryan Goins, per season. That is significant.
Over his career, Ryan Goins (0.3 WAR) has been a replacement-level player, suitable for a bench role. Devon Travis (4.1 WAR) has been a solid MLB starter. Not simply in the literal sense that he has started in the MLB when healthy, but in the sense that players who produce 2-3 WAR per season (as Travis has) are considered “solid MLB starters” by Fangraphs. They might not win awards, but they are an important part of championship teams.
My overarching message to (some) Blue Jays fans is simple: stop taking Devon Travis for granted!
Over the 2015-17 seasons, 27 MLB second basemen have had 600+ PA and 1350+ innings at second base. Travis is comfortably middle of the pack, both offensively (his 105 wRC+ ranks 13th) and defensively (his 2 DRS rank 12th, while his 3.4 UZR ranks 9th). In his career, he has out-hit and out-defended fellow starting second basemen Rougned Odor, Jonathan Schoop, Starlin Castro and Brandon Phillips (in terms of wRC+, DRS and UZR).
While results haven’t gone his way this year, he is making great contact, with his .332 xwOBA ranking 10th among the 27 second basemen with 50+ AB. He’s even out-contacting big name, bat-first second basemen like the aforementioned Odor (.293 xwOBA, 21st) and Jose Altuve (.288 xwOBA, 22nd).
Are there better second baseman than Devon Travis in the majors? Yes, but the list is much shorter than the list of second basemen that are inferior to him. I understand that an (eventually run-scoring) error in a game that was 1-0 until the 6th is very frustrating. And it’s fair to feel even more frustrated by the fact that it was committed by a player who isn’t currently producing results at the plate. But Travis is a player with a strong (if short) track record at the plate and in the field.
Over a similar amount of playing time, he has been an unquestionably better all-around second baseman than Ryan Goins. Next time he makes a mistake in the field or strikes out swinging, we should try something new and empathize with the personal shame any athlete feels after he messes up. At the very least, don’t be jerks about it.
*Featured image Credit: Bliss Nogueira 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.