Entering spring training this past February, there wasn’t really a definitive spot for Travis Jankowski on the San Diego Padres roster. Jon Jay, Melvin Upton Jr., and Matt Kemp were all expected to play every day for the foreseeable future.
Jabari Blash and his massive power was expected to get a chance to play at the big league level. As a matter of fact, the Padres were apparently talking about a potential trade involving Jankowski during the offseason, although talks never got serious.
Due to this outfield logjam, the 2012 second-round pick out of St. John’s seemed poised to start the season in El Paso with the Chihuahuas in the Pacific Coast League.
Jankowski wasn’t buying this train of thought, though. In the offseason leading up to spring, Jankowski put on ten pounds of muscle through weight lifting, and apparently, lots of chicken. He was quoted as saying, “I ate a lot of chicken. I’m all chickened out right now.” This new body, along with a .250/.353/.318 spring training slash line, convinced the Padres management to place him on the Opening Day roster.
Travis Jankowski’s first few months of 2016 consisted of pinch-hit and late-game defensive appearances. Up until June 19th, he recorded only 62 plate appearances. That all changed because on June 19th everyday CF Jon Jay was hit in the forearm by a Gio Gonzalez fastball and had to leave the game. Jay ended up having a broken forearm, causing him to miss 65 games.
Travis Jankowski was now the starting center fielder for the San Diego Padres. During Jay’s absence, Jankowski led off a good portion of the games and hit .251 with a very nice .342 OBP. He stole 25 bases (including two steals of home) and was only caught six times. This was not the best part of his game, though. He continually flashed gold-glove caliber defense, and this defensive ability alone made him an extremely valuable player.
Jankowski ended the year with a 2.1 WAR and a .245/.332/.313 stat line. A year in which he was expected to spend in a platoon role ended up with him playing in 131 games while receiving 383 plate appearances. There is no doubt that Jankowski is a favorite to start for the Padres in 2017. The only question is whether it will be in CF or LF, as star CF prospect Manuel Margot will likely be knocking on the door of the Opening Day lineup as well. The Padres can either go with Margot everyday in center and Jankowski in left field, or vice-versa.
Travis Jankowski can cover some serious ground. In Petco National Park, that’s important.
Jankowski was top-five in nearly all CF defensive metrics in 2016. He was fifth in center field UZR, second in RngR (The number of runs above or below average a fielder is, determined by how the fielder is able to get to balls hit in his vicinity), and fifth in defensive WAR. His arm is not great, but you don’t necessarily have to throw people out when you’re catching everything. Not only does Jankowski pass the analytics test, but he passes the eye test too. A great first step, smooth, excellent route taker, and a player with solid baseball instincts are all terms that are used to describe Travis Jankowski. His defense alone makes him a starting center fielder in this league. He is that good.
Travis Jankowksi is not only a good base-stealer, he is a dynamic base-stealer. He can fly. He has always been able to do so. He stole 79 bases in three years at Stony Brook University. In 2013, at Lake Elsinore, he swiped 71 bases. This year, he stole 30 bases, including two steals of home.
The Padres basically took the reigns off Jankowski and told him to fly, and he did. His 30 stolen bases tied him with Mike Trout and Jose Altuve (pretty nice company) for sixth in all of baseball. According to FanGraphs BsR, Jankowski was the 31st best base runner in baseball (in limited time). Jankowski helped the Padres lead all of baseball in BsR by an extremely large margin. With Jankowski as an everyday player, the Padres have an identity across baseball as a team that is extremely successful and efficient on the base paths.
Hitting Against RHP
Travis Jankowski loves hitting against right handed pitchers. His splits are rather ridiculous, and he is much more successful against righties than vs southpaws. Jankowski hit .275 with a .368 OBP against righties in 2016 with a 105 wRC+. Both of Jankowski’s 2016 home runs came against right handed pitchers, and he stole 26 bases off right handed pitchers compared to only four bases off lefties. His walk rate against righties was an acceptable 12.1%.
Hitting Against LHP
In his brief career, Travis Jankowski has struggled mightily against left-handers. It is a small sample size, yes (only 114 plate appearances), but he has only hit .173/.225/.221 with a 24 wRC+ against southpaws. The K% is inflated at 28.1% as well. Again, that’s only a small sample size, and Jankowski is still only 25. His minor league numbers against lefites weren’t bad at all, so he is clearly not as poor against LHP as the numbers indicate. However, how he faces lefties next season and beyond will determine his longevity and success as an everyday starter in the majors.
Travis Jankowski is never going to develop the power to hit home runs, and that’s okay. He has only hit seven home runs in professional ball, and four of those have come at the big league level. Why? Part of it is his swing, and Jankowski is fine with it:
“I don’t think the swing, per se,” answered Jankowski. “Maybe the path a little bit. A lot of guys are more steep to the ball to create that backspin. My hands are pretty flat through the zone, which allows me to have better bat-to-ball contact, but not as much power. I’m not too concerned about that. That’s not me as a baseball player. I’m more about speed.”
Jankowski’s flat swing/path causes him to hit more line drives and ground balls. With his speed, that is not a bad thing at all. In the N.L. West, where spacious outfields are abundant (Petco, AT&T, Chase, Coors), Travis Jankowski can hit the gaps and fly.
High K Percentage
In his brief MLB career, Jankowski has K’d quite a bit. In 479 plate appearances, Jankowski has struck out 124 times to the tune of nearly 26%. All hope is not lost, though. These high strikeout numbers are not in tune with his minor league numbers, where he walked almost as much as he struck out. In 2016, his swinging strike percentage was down and his contact percentage was up a healthy amount from 2015. The high strikeout rate is alarming, yes, but with more experience under his belt and with improvements in his contact rates, I would expect Jankowski’s strikeouts to drop in 2017.
Padres fans should be thrilled to have Travis Jankowski. He, in my opinion, will play a big role in the next good Padres team. Jankowski is the perfect Petco player. He should only get better, too. Whether it be in left field or center field, expect Travis Jankowski and his glorious hair to be manning the outfield on an everyday basis in 2017.