Devon Travis started 2015 off with a bang. The rookie second baseman made the leap from prospect to major league contributor quickly. However, there is a glaring weakness in his approach at the plate. Sean O’Neill thinks Devon Travis needs to adjust to fix this problem.
Baseball America has put out Top 100 prospect lists since 1990. Right-handed pitchers have been the most frequently listed type with 854 appearances. Among position players, shortstop is the most common individual position with 276 appearances (outfielders are lumped together, but appear as a group 609 times). The most underrepresented group? Second basemen, who appear only 90 times, with only 66 appearances by 2B-only prospects in those 26 years. Of course, this overstates things a bit. A decent number of those shortstop prospects would end up at 2B in MLB, including Dee Gordon, Christian Colon, Gordon Beckham, Brandon Phillips, Kelly Johnson, and others.
Regardless, the minor league 2B prospect is a bit of a rare bird. Even when some analysts think a second base prospect is the real deal, such as Ben Badler listing Devon Travis as the Tigers’ #1 prospect entering the offseason, others may still write them off entirely, as with Keith Law’s repeated pronouncements that Travis was a “non-prospect”. While divided opinions are not unusual for prospects, that level of a divide is notable. Almost as notable as Devon Travis’ numbers thus far in his rookie campaign.
Among MLB second basemen (with 100 plate appearances), Travis currently ranks 8th in fWAR, 2nd in wOBA, and tied for 2nd in home runs. Unfortunately for Travis, those rankings during May with 50 plate appearances are much less glossy, as he ranked tied for 28th in fWAR, 28th in wOBA, and tied for 19th (with 1) in HRs. Monthly samples are admittedly a small and arbitrary size. Sometimes differences even as large as these can just be noise, with no discernible reason behind them. Unfortunately for the Blue Jays second basemen, that does not appear to be the case.
Like the undersized second baseman who plays in Boston, Travis has a fairly aggressive uppercut swing. As a result he does most of his damage up in the zone, particularly pitches high and inside, an area Dustin Pedroia has feasted on as well throughout his career. While we are still dealing with a fairly limited sample with Travis, his batting average zone profile is still illustrative in this regards compared to Pedroia’s:
However, the real point of interest is not where Travis succeeds: it is where he fails. Look at the bottom two fifths of that chart for Travis. Below the middle of the zone, Travis is batting .219. Below the entire strike zone, he is hitting a cringe inducing .114. Compare that to .290 and .245 respectively for Pedroia’s career. So what is causing this difference? Well, when you look at how much they swing at those pitches, there’s really not that huge of a difference. In those pitches below the strike zone, Pedroia swings 28% of the time compared to Travis’ 33%. Slightly less selective, but not disastrously so. Look at the whiff rate… and there’s your problem.
Whereas Pedroia swings and misses only 21.1% of the time at pitches below the strike zone, Travis whiffs an outrageous 40% of the time at those pitches. Swinging slightly more and missing almost twice as much? Yeah, that is going to cause some serious issues. The question then becomes, why can’t Devon Travis make contact on low pitches? To answer that, we need to switch over from statistics to mechanics:
Alright, so we have seen both of their respective swings. Now lets freeze frame both at the point of contact with the ball:
Look at how low Pedroia is when he makes contact. His back knee is mere inches above the ground, and his front leg is extended well in front of him. Compare that to Travis, whose front leg is stiff and barely extended at all, and whose back knee is barely bent. While those type of mechanics may work well if you’re 6’5” behemoth like Kris Bryant, Devon Travis simply can’t get the same kind of plate coverage at his size. Instead, combining his uppercut swing with such an upright stance (for a man of such small stature) and you can see the makings of that big whiff rate. Travis simply cannot get the barrel of the bat low enough, long enough, to do damage against pitches below the strike zone like Pedroia does.
If Travis is going to succeed in the long run, he will have to adjust. In the short run, a more selective approach towards those low pitches would certainly help. In particular, swinging over half the time at inside pitches below the zone when you hit in the .100 range on those pitches is something Travis will have to stop. Of course, it’s easier to tell a hitter to stop swinging at certain pitches than it is for them to make the adjustment during the games. If Travis cannot improve his recognition on those low pitches, a mechanical adjustment may be in order. While it’s unlikely that Travis will ever get as low as Pedroia does, some tinkering with the placement of his front leg (perhaps extending it a bit further out) could allow him to get the barrel of the bat lower in the zone.
Baseball is a game of adjustments. Weaknesses are found and exploited, adjustments are made to cover those weaknesses, new weaknesses emerge, and the cycle repeats. Devon Travis’ weakness at this point is clear enough. It’s time to adjust or perish.