The Year Devon Travis Didn’t Walk Against Lefties

Devon Travis, running, not walking. Keith Allison via Flickr.

July 2015 was a different time. Prince and David Bowie were still alive. Dave Stewart still had a job in baseball. Also, J.A. Happ was still a Seattle Mariner.

More specifically, July 25th, 2015 was the last time that J.A. Happ pitched against the Blue Jays. That day is significant because something else curious happened that day. While it makes complete sense that, after being traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates of the National League on July 31st, J.A. Happ wouldn’t make another start against the Blue Jays before that team signed him on November 27th as a free agent; what doesn’t make sense is this: on July 25th, in the top of 2nd inning, J.A. Happ walked Devon Travis with the bases loaded.

Sorry, I should be specific; that was not the last time Happ would walk in a runner with the bases loaded; he’d do that with Josh Donaldson, the next batter in the very same game. And he’d also do it on August 4th against the Chicago Cubs in his first start as Pittsburgh Pirate. No, here’s what doesn’t make sense about July 25th, 2015: that day, July 25th, 2015, was the last time Devon Travis walked against a left-handed pitcher.

It would make sense that Travis didn’t draw anymore walks against lefties in 2015. Travis’ 2015 campaign would be cut short due to a shoulder injury; he was DL-bound on July 31st before ultimately being shut down for the rest of the season. So that explains why he didn’t draw anymore walks against lefties in 2015. But it doesn’t explain how he went the entire 2016 season without drawing a single walk against a left-handed pitcher.

Per FanGraphs, here’s how the Blue Jays lineup fared against lefties in 2016, (min. 50 plate appearances) sorted by walk rate.

Name PA BB% K% BB/K OBP SLG OPS ISO BABIP wRC+
Edwin Encarnacion 149 18.8 % 20.1 % 0.93 .385 .517 .902 .275 .247 142
Josh Donaldson 160 18.1 % 14.4 % 1.26 .413 .519 .932 .240 .290 150
Russell Martin 129 14.7 % 29.5 % 0.50 .333 .367 .700 .147 .284 92
Jose Bautista 105 13.3 % 15.2 % 0.88 .324 .429 .752 .209 .214 103
Troy Tulowitzki 122 9.8 % 18.0 % 0.55 .336 .431 .767 .165 .289 104
Justin Smoak 95 9.5 % 20.0 % 0.47 .284 .337 .621 .128 .234 67
Michael Saunders 123 8.1 % 29.3 % 0.28 .358 .569 .927 .294 .338 147
Darwin Barney 108 7.4 % 13.9 % 0.53 .361 .418 .779 .112 .341 109
Ezequiel Carrera 78 6.4 % 21.8 % 0.29 .372 .452 .824 .123 .418 123
Kevin Pillar 149 2.0 % 15.4 % 0.13 .302 .407 .709 .124 .325 87
Devon Travis 101 0.0 % 19.8 % 0.00 .257 .360 .617 .100 .304 59

A .260/.257/.360 slash line for Devon Travis is pretty putrid. You know things are bad for Devon Travis when you have fewer walks than Kevin “I don’t talk about walks” Pillar. And, seeing Darwin Barney‘s healthy-relative-to-Travis’ .779 OPS 162 points higher than Travis’, one might wonder whether Devon Travis could be a platoon candidate against lefties in 2017. 

Was 2016 an outlier?

OK, hold on here. I’m not suggesting a Devon Travis/Darwin Barney platoon at 2B in 2017. The interesting thing about Devon Travis is that he wasn’t always bad against lefties; in 2015 he performed quite well against southpaws, including, yes, walks!

Season Handedness BB% K% BB/K AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO BABIP wRC+
2015 vs L 6.5 % 11.3 % 0.57 .328 .371 .603 .974 .276 .319 166
2016 vs L 0.0 % 19.8 % 0.00 .260 .257 .360 .617 .100 .304 59

That .974 OPS is excellent. Even looking at his minor-league stats (thanks, Baseball-Reference) shows that Travis was still successful against lefties (though with varying degrees of success).

Season / Split G PA AB H HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
2013 (A, A+, AZFL) vs LHP 59 131 118 42 4 15 9 11 .356 .405 .517 .922
2014 (AA) vs LHP 59 144 130 33 5 12 13 22 .254 .319 .462 .781

Obviously, the table above suggests there’s some history showing that Devon Travis has been able to hit (and walk) against lefties in the past.

So what happened in 2016?

A Different Approach?

For whatever reason, Devon Travis’ approach changed in 2016. Against all pitchers, he swung at pitches more often (45.5% in 2015 vs. 49.3% in 2016), swung outside the zone more frequently, and made less contact on those pitches. Even against lefties specifically, he swung more frequently at pitches outside the zone.

Here’s Devon’s 2016 swing rate by zone against southpaws, from the catcher’s perspective:

Versus 2015:

I can’t be certain why Devon Travis started swinging more often, I can only speculate. It could have been the result of a conversation with hitting coach Brook Jacoby or assistant hitting coach Eric Owens, encouraging him to swing more often. It could have been he felt his shoulder was much better, and he wanted to prove that. Or, it could have been that he felt the pressure of being put in the leadoff spot atop the Jays’ lineup, and wanted to prove that he could get on base.

Looking at 2017

Here’s an alarming graph I’d like to share with you (which I was going to use in another post that I’ve never gotten around to writing, so I might as well use it here):

In just two seasons with the Blue Jays, Devon Travis already ranks among the top 5 most frequently injured players of any Toronto hitter in the past 5 years. His 2016 postseason came to a halt due to a knee injury, and though he’s expected to be ready for Spring Training, one can’t help but wonder what effect this latest injury will have on Travis in 2017. This is just one of the questions for Devon Travis in 2017; another, surely, will be whether or not he can stay healthy.

Obviously, we’re still more than two months out from the start of the season; so while the leadoff role may be up for grabs right now, all signs point to Travis slotting back in atop the Jays’ lineup (unless, all of a sudden, Kevin Pillar wants to start talking about walks).

Ideally, I’d like to see Travis swing at fewer pitches outside the zone in 2017. Even though he was still a productive player overall in 2016 (hell, he was worth 2.5 wins), his wRC+ of 109 might creep back up towards the 135 wRC+ he posted in 2015. If he can refine his approach (just a bit) and be more selective with his pitches, cut down on his swings outside of the strike zone, I believe he can once again be more like his 2015 self.

It remains to be seen what kind of hitter the Jays can expect atop the order; will they get 2015 Devon Travis, 2016 Devon Travis, or a 2017 Devon Travis that falls somewhere in the middle of those two years? Will his swing rate continue to climb, and will he continue to be a productive hitter in spit of it.

If the Jays get a full season in 2017 of 2015-level Devon Travis, I think he won’t just be a good player, he can be a great one. Oh, and last question: will he take a walk against a lefty?

Dave

Dave is the Managing Editor of BunttotheGap.com. He lives in Toronto, is staunchly #TeamDog, and has been to 18 of 30 MLB ballparks. You can contact him at dave@bunttothegap.com.