Prospects often struggle. It happens to top prospects as well as the fringe ones. Sometimes their struggles are short lived and they return to flourishing. Damian Dydyn wants to let everyone know that recently promoted Sam Travis can rake.
With the 67th overall pick in the 2014 Amateur Player Draft, the Boston Red Sox selected right-handed hitting first baseman, Sam Travis out of Indiana University. He was their third pick in the draft behind Michael Chavis and Michael Kopech. He may not be as exciting as the two high school players chosen before him, but he was the best pure hitter they picked in that draft. Jim Callis at MLB.com wrote that Travis was “one of the better all-around college hitters” while praising his “bat speed, strength and advanced approach.” The downside with Travis was that he was already limited to first base and at 6’ and 200 pounds, he wasn’t the prototypical build for the position. The Red Sox decided to take a chance and since being drafted he has done nothing but impress at the plate.
He has already made three stops in his nascent minor league career. At Lowell, he posted a wRC+ of 140, then after 40 games he moved to Greenville and recorded a 124 wRC+. This year, he continued to hit well at Salem with a 142 wRC+ prior to his call-up to AA Portland. This means he was 40% better than league average in Lowell, 24% better at Greenville and 42% better this season at Salem. He hit seven home runs combined last year between Lowell and Greenville, and has five so far in the 2015 campaign. But what does any of that mean? Is he really hitting the ball that well or is he enjoying some luck? How old has he been relative to the leagues he’s playing in? Is what he’s doing sustainable or is he due to regress?
There are a number of ways we can look at Travis’s numbers to try and answer some of those questions. The easiest to answer is his age relative to the leagues he’s been playing in. According to Baseball America, the median age for Low-A leagues (Greenville in this case) tends to be about 22. At High-A (Salem) the median age is around 23. Travis will not turn 22 until August 27th, so he has been young for all three leagues he’s played in and will be more than two years younger than the median age in the Eastern League. That is a good sign that his numbers are due to his skills and not other factors, like the experience to have developed a more advanced approach, or time to fill out with more muscle or learn the league’s pitchers.
Looking at Sam Travis’s BABIP (batting average on balls in play) over the past two years can help determine if his success is luck-driven or a repeatable skill. In 2014, he enjoyed a .357 BABIP in Lowell but saw it fall closer to league average in Greenville at just .308. Unfortunately, there isn’t anywhere to get reliable batted ball type data on minor league hitters. We cannot check his line drive rate to see if his Lowell BABIP was driven by a lot of hard contact, which is more sustainable and not always an indication that regression is due. He had a reputation as a line drive hitter coming into the draft, however, so it is certainly possible that this was the case. His BABIP at Salem was .356, raising the same question. Baseball Savant’s minor league site (www.mlbfarm.com) does have spray charts, but keep in mind that the decision on which type of contact he is making for each ball in play is subjective, and at the minor league level there is less scrutiny about those judgements:
The data that is is available does not contradict the prediction about his solid line drive rate as there were plenty of doubles, deep singles and fly outs. The average line drive percentage in 2014 at the major league level was 20.8%. According to mlbfarm.com, Travis hit 41 line drives out of 233 balls in play for 17.6% on the season.
His 2015 chart looks similar:
This season he has a 15.1% line drive rate with 29 line drives out of 192 balls in play. In both charts, it is shown that his home run power presents mostly to the pull side. However, he has consistently made solid contact to all fields in his career with 41 balls hit to right, 38 to center and 38 to left in 2014 and 35/40/36 this season before the promotion. So, while his line drive rates are a little below the major league average, he is not getting by on a lot of seeing-eye singles or infield grounders.
One of the reasons Travis is able to spray line drives around the outfield is his compact, simple swing. There aren’t a lot of moving parts and he has a nice level path through the zone. Here he is cleaning out a slider that was hung up and in:
He keeps his hands in and generates a lot of torque from his hips. His head stays in on the ball through the point of contact and his stride does not include a big leg kick.
Now let’s slow that swing down and look at it from the first base dugout side:
Again, the head stays in, the hands stay close to the body and his swing plane is nice and level. That leg kick is still very small and the follow through is tight and two-handed. Everything about his swing is compact and simple which means it is repeatable. The one thing that does stand out a little – which you can see more clearly in the first animated gif – is that he starts with an open stance and closes up as he loads his hands. This could just be a timing mechanism but it is the one area that could manifest some inconsistency in his mechanics in the future. Of course, these are the kinds of adjustments hitters make all the time and Sam Travis is no stranger to adjustments.
The most encouraging thing about Travis’s minor league career so far is that when he has struggled after an introduction to a higher level of competition, he has been quick to adapt. He only posted a .650 OPS in his first 22 games in Lowell, but followed that up by crushing the ball to the tune of 1.015 in his final 17. Once in Greenville, he continued raking for the rest of the season. To open the 2015 season in Salem, he posted a .482 OPS over ten games and followed that with a .906 OPS over his last 56 in High-A. The ability to make adjustments is crucial for prospects working their way toward the majors so it is a good sign that Travis has been able to adjust as he has faced more advanced pitchers.
The final thing we can look at is his approach at the plate. In an ESPN article shortly after Travis was drafted, Mike Andrews praised his patience and discipline which allows him to “limit swings and misses.” The ability to draw a walk did not show up immediately in his first taste of professional ball with the Lowell Spinners, but he did increase his walk percentage to 6.1% in Greenville and further raised it to 9.4% in Salem. He only struck out 10.3% while in the New York-Penn League, which mitigated the lack of walks there, and he has seen that number bump up slightly at each level moving to 12.2% in Low-A and 15.5% in High-A this year. The major league average in K% last year was 20.4% and has been creeping up slowly over the previous five years from 18.0% in 2009. The major league average walk rate was 7.6% last year and ticked down from 8.9% over that same five-year span.
The timing of Travis’s rise through the farm system could work out well for the Red Sox as Mike Napoli will become a free agent at the end of this season and David Ortiz is on the verge of retirement. After the Carolina League All-Star Game, in which Travis started at first base and went 2-4 with a strikeout, he was promoted to AA Portland. He should finish the season there though it is not out of the realm of possibility that he would see a little time in AAA Pawtucket if he continues to excel at the plate. If you are looking for a darkhorse contender to make an unexpected jump into the Red Sox top five prospects this year, Sam Travis is probably your guy. To take it a step further, he stands a pretty good chance of being the best player the Red Sox drafted in 2014.