I was going through old pics on my phone and stumbled on an illustrated meme of five players from last year’s Toronto Blue Jays roster. It’s date-stamped from April of 2016.
The image was comprised of in-game snapshots and each player is looking skyward, almost as if giving thanks to the baseball Gods after some measure of success had been granted them, playing this humbling game.
From most vantage points, right there: you already have a small sampling of the core group of the Toronto Blue Jays everyday players. To think of the omissions; except for Stroman, the Blue Jays rotation isn’t depicted, nor is our local super hero Kevin Pillar, not to mention Tulo. You get the idea. It’s how a team with a win-now mentality and complexion should look.
Rather than the tall task of marvelling at an entire team’s elite features however, for the sake of brevity, and the fact he’s really that good, let’s focus on 1 core player out of our starting 9 that’s due for a break-out season: Devon Travis, our 5’9, 25 year-old second baseman.
The Toronto Blue Jays original acquisition of Travis is a good starting point to help us understand his perceived value to the organization. Detroit dealt him after the 2014 season on a simple straight-up 1-for-1 deal for one of our shiniest prospect pieces: up-and-coming, at the time, centre fielder Anthony Gose.
Since then Gose has fallen to the lower ranks of the Tigers system, mostly due to his lack of hitting. At the time of the trade though, he was a highly regarded prospect with lots of upside, mostly due to his blazing speed which was showcased both on the base paths, and in centre field – grabbing a lot of deep, hard-hit balls out of the sky and converting potential extra bases into outs.
More importantly to the GM at the time, Alex Anthopoulos, the team was in dire need of a second baseman who could hit. I don’t blame the GM or organization for identifying this as a need, as they’d been to the point of mostly relying on a revolving door of players at second (see: Emilio Bonifacio) ever since Aaron Hill.
So obviously high hopes fell upon Devon Travis’s shoulders directly, going into camp in 2015.
As unluck would have it, Travis was forced to sit out the majority of the 2015 season and continued to battle injuries into 2016, despite still managing 410 plate appearances last year.
From that sample size it is not inconceivable that the Jays have found their second baseman of the present, and the future.
Being such a crafty hitter and grinder, with the uncanny ability to hit with 2 strikes, is working so far in Travis’s limited playing time. In 2016 he managed to produce a.300 batting average, the highest on the team he can boast, as well as 11 home runs, 50 RBI, 28 doubles and in total managed a tally of 123 hits.
That’s a very healthy baseline to work with and a healthy Travis, as our everyday second baseman this year would easily garner around 200 more plate appearances than in his limited 2016 campaign. One need not be a sabermatrician to see the kind of unlocked potential we have in Travis if you expand his sample size to a full season.
His developing plate discipline coupled with his quick hands can also force up pitch-counts and wear down a pitcher. His compact, repeatable swing allows for his ability to make contact, but also work a count and hit with 2 strikes.
Thinking about Travis’ abilities brings me to a recent article I came across, where former Major Leaguer Kris Johnson as a pitcher for the Hiroshima Carp, had this to say, after having the unfortunate task of facing Takuya Nakayama during the Japan league’s version of the World Series last year,
“He’s just an annoying hitter, that’s it!..A guy that looks to foul everything off [until] you walk him.”
Quite an instructive and revealing quote from a major league pitcher no less, expressing the difficulty facing a tough at-bat.
In one particular at-bat in that series vs. Nakayama for example, Nakayama fouled off 8 of Johnson’s pitches in a 12-pitch at-bat that resulted in a walk. Travis may not be that “annoying” yet, but his ability to make contact is a big part of his game.
The one detraction from Travis’s game however is his defence. He’s committed multiple errors during short spans of games, yet has also looked solid and sure-handed in the field for long stretches too.
Fortunately this seems correctable. As long as he continues working diligently with infield coach Luis Rivera, we can expect to see him pick a lot more ground balls cleanly.
Let’s just be thankful his infielding is not beyond-repair, such as when Chuck Knoblauch essentially ended his career as a result of his inability to consistently throw the ball to first base.
2017 bodes well for Devon Travis, especially with that most-valuable-of-all “clean bill of health.” He should be able to rely on his quick bat speed again, allowing the ball to enter deep into the zone and thus hit to all fields and for extra bases.
In the current Blue Jays projected batting order he should be able to keep the line moving by both table-setting, and driving in runs.
A player like Travis certainly makes the manager’s life easier too, as Gibby can slot him in multiple places in the order.