The game of baseball has rapidly changed in the last few years.
Today, most offenses prioritize power over contact. They look for run producers instead of contributors and hope that their big bats get on base enough to score runs off someone else’s hits. However, possessing at least one player who has lightning quick feet and Gold Glove-worthy defense is a must for clubs that hope to compete in playoff games and win championships.
One player who had these tools in the 2017 playoffs was Cameron Maybin. Although he only received seven at-bats and contributed just one RBI, one play he did make saved the Astros’ season and allowed them to fight on to glory. In Game 2 of the World Series, he stole a base off of Dodgers’ reliever Brandon McCarthy in the eleventh inning.
Besides providing everyone in America with a free taco from Taco Bell, Maybin also gave Houston the win. By stealing, he put added stress onto L.A.’s pitcher and helped unnerve the pitcher to surrender a home run from the next hitter, George Springer. His wheels finalized the game at 7-6 in favor of the Astros. Without him, Houston may not have even reached Game 7. As such, speed-oriented athletes are vital to an organization’s success.
For the San Diego Padres, Travis Jankowski could be that person. However, we must first look at positives and negatives in his playing style in order to determine if he can one day, when the Friars make it to the playoffs, support his teammates like Maybin did.
A tool that can not be taught, speed has always served as Jankowski’s best asset. Drafted out of Stony Brook with the 44th overall pick of the 2012 draft primarily because of his wheels, the young centerfielder has not disappointed. As he ascended the minor league ranks, he stole 137 bases, topping out at 71 in 122 games in 2013. This caused him to rank third in the minors that year. He has continued that trend even in the majors. In 2016, his first full season as a San Diego Padre, Jank stole 30 bases in a platoon role with John Jay.
If he were an everyday player, getting about 600 plate appearances instead of the 383 he had, his stolen base number could have approached 55, an elite figure in today’s game. Sadly, 2017 was not as kind to him. Due to a bone bruise on his right foot, the speedster was out the whole season starting on April 23. As a result, he only accumulated four bases taken. However, somehow, he still contributed 1.4 runs above average with his base running. For comparison, Manuel Margot, supposedly the Padres’ fastest starter, had a 1.0 BsR in 99 more games played. Such a dominating feat is therefore incredible, but Travis has always been known as quicker than his peers. MLB.com consistently ranked him a 70-grade runner on their prospect lists. Thus, if nothing else, expect “Fred” to increase his current base running value of 5.2 and his wins above replacement number of 1.9 in the upcoming years. In this way, he will remain valuable.
As with most lightning-quick artists, Travis Jankowski is an exceptional defender. Viewed as a plus fielder during his rise through the Friars’ system, the 26-year-old has certainly proven his supporters correct in this tool. During his time as a platoon partner, “Freddy” proved to be 13.5% better than the average outfielder. While the defensive column associated with this percentage is heavily swayed by innings competed in, this means that the 2012 draftee had an advantage since he participated less than other outfielders.
Yet there are other stats that show how effective the center fielder was. In 789 innings, the long-haired youngster possessed a 15.4% greater range factor than average and saved eight runs in his limited exposure to major league ball. 2017 was a similar story, but there wasn’t enough games to see how irreplaceable he was in the field. Besides the stellar results he gets while patrolling the green, what’s absurd about Jankowski is that he has the ability to thrive at each outfield position. With his 40-grade arm and -2.7 arm effectiveness score, he shouldn’t have any place in right. Yet Andy Green still considers him to be an option there. This speaks to how proficient the player is as a fielder, especially since he has saved five runs in 143.1 innings at position nine. The Padres certainly needed this sort of defense as the team limped to 27th place.
Although Travis Jankowski already has electrifying speed and defense, his courage to take risks makes him even more dangerous. This sometimes translates into bad situations such as when he lost significant time in 2014. Because of a broken left wrist suffered from a spectacular diving catch as a Storm outfielder, he only partook in 46 contests. However, more often than not this behavior has benefited the Padres. In 2016 alone, the brave man stole home twice. This is a rare feat for many in a time frame of multiple years. Thus, the fact that he completed the task in one season is beyond belief. Moreover, the comically nicknamed Freddy has yielded great results in the field partly because of his willingness to risk his limbs. At Dodger stadium on September 4, 2016, Travis slid into the center field wall in order to make an astounding catch. This play had a possibility of going very wrong. Yet situations like this have transformed Jankowski into a premier defender, possibly one of the best in the entire pro league.
In order to best utilize tantalizing speed on offense, one must get on base. For Jankowski, this has been an unsightly struggle and a strange one because of his propensity to be mowed down. When he was a Padre farmhand, this speedster excelled at balancing his strikeout tendency with a solid walk habit. For example, in 2015 as a San Antonio Mission and then an El Paso Chihuahua, he K’d 50 times in 379 at-bats while also accumulating 49 base-on-balls. Such patience was an admirable trait.
However, once he reached the majors, Travis proved to be an impatient hitter. In each major league season, he has carried a hideous strikeout rate of at least 25%, even hitting 32.2% in 2017. These are unacceptable figures for any swinger, but especially for one whose best career wRC+ is 83 and best career ISO is .133. In short, so much more is expected of the center fielder than what he is currently providing. If he doesn’t become more patient, then he risks losing his roster spot to similarly gifted defenders such as Franchy Cordero, who can provide some offense as well. Yet if he does, then he has the potential to continuously exceed the Mendoza (.200 BA) line and reaching base safely at a .300 rate, something he was incapable of this year. In fact, he could pass those marks by a vast amount if change were to take place.
As I have noted in this piece, Travis Jankowski has lost considerable time to injury. Over his pro career, including minors as well as majors, he has gone down from late April to the end of the year. In 2014 it was a broken wrist that brought him down, and in 2017 it was an ankle problem that knocked him out. These times have hurt his development.
For instance, even though 2017 was a trying season for Jankowski in terms of striking out, there was opportunity for him on the bench to improve. The aforementioned 30.2% may well have been much lower if trauma was not creeping through the door. Moreover, since 2017’s pain arose from foot pain, we don’t know how Jankowski will bounce back. Will his speed be diminished because of what has occurred? If it is, then how will his base-running ability and defense be affected? If negatively, then how could Jankowski be deserving of roster space? These are questions which give us hesitation when evaluating the blonde demon’s future.
Lack of Power
Lastly, power is a skill that has never been talked about in connection with Jankowski, unless in a very negative way. There is a good justification for this. When he was drafted in 2012, scouts placed a 20 grade on his raw strength. Then, before he became a major league piece, MLB.com noted that “his flat swing produces no power” whatsoever. As such, it wasn’t a surprise when he used 383 2016 at-bats to swat just two round-trippers and seventeen total extra base hits. That truly is the definition of powerless, especially in the game of baseball where home runs are so abundant that rumors of a juiced ball have been rampant. However, this is a skill that probably won’t improve to double digits. Jankowski is too old and thin to undergo such a revolution. He also doesn’t need to as he gets better at reaching first and swiping bags, which is similar to an XBH.
Overall, Travis Jankowski will always be on the Padres’ radar as his baserunning and defense provides too much value to be ignored. But he is in danger of either being a defensive/base-running specialist, or even minor league depth if there’s no improvement. Patience must become his virtue as that is what limits him the most. A positive that can be taken away from his plate approach is his excellent OBP in face of his horrible average. This year and last, he has maintained a solid walk rate of more than ten percent. Without raising his average though, the on-base ability will remain below average. There is enough reason to trust Jankowski with a roster spot in 2018, including the fact that he showed superb potential in 2016 and only had a brief time to exhibit offensive life in 2017. With more time, he could be a better version of Billy Hamilton. Both are fleet-footed and amazing fielders, but Travis has more on-base potential and therefore more potential to impact his team. As proof for Jankowski’s supremacy over Hamilton, just look at their wins above replacement numbers last season. The Padre earned a 2.1 stat while the Red held a 3.1 with 100 more at-bats and more experience. In the end, next season should be a pivotal one in Jankowski’s career, as he could either become another franchise cornerstone or a flop.