Blake Swihart has been a polarizing figure to watch for the Boston Red Sox this spring. He has churned a very respectable .289 AVG/.347 OBP/.578 SLG line in 45 at-bats in the Grapefruit League. Combine those numbers with a former high-prospect pedigree and zero minor league options available, it becomes obvious why he is garnering so much attention.
Talking about Swihart is at the forefront of everybody’s mind. With that said, the chatter has drawn attention away from another Boston player who has performed quite well this spring. The player’s name is Sam Travis and he looks a far cry from the player we have seen in the past.
Spring stats are telling
Sure, spring training stats are not entirely meaningful. It is such a small sample size and the level of competition tends to be inferior. However, when a player’s approach changes so drastically, even with the limited sample, spring stats can be telling.
Perhaps this is anecdotal evidence, and not all that predictive, but Travis has hit four homeruns in 48 at-bats in spring. He has hit four doubles to go along with that. That is a lot of power, contributing to his tantalizing .580 slugging percentage in spring.
The most home runs the right-handed hitter has ever hit at a given level is six. He has done this twice, launching six balls over the fence in his last two years at Triple-A. Granted, looking at the raw number of homers a player has hit can be misleading. In other words, it is not necessarily indicative of a player’s power. You need to know the context. So, here it is…
Both of Travis’ Triple-A stints were partial seasons, compiling 532 plate appearances between them. Essentially, that is roughly a full season, so it would be more logical to conclude he would have knocked approximately 10-15 balls out of the park if he had played a full season in Pawtucket. Math is fun.
I will say, however, that Sam Travis hitting four homers in such a short span is probably a good indicator. Homeruns stabilize more quickly than other batted ball events, so this may have more staying power than, say, if his average had increased .100 points.
Still, cumulative homerun totals do not express a player’s full prowess in the power department. Above all, it certainly does not speak to their overall offensive contributions.
Low slugging percentage
Seemingly, the 2014 2nd-round pick has not lived up to be the hitter Boston thought he would become when they drafted him. Not only has he struggled with the deep ball, but he has not hit for much power. In 342 plate appearances in Triple-A last season, he slugged an unsightly .375. Despite the low slugging percentage, Travis still managed to put up decent offensive numbers in Pawtucket with a 107 wRC+, which was carried by his solid .351 OBP.
In past seasons, he has hit for more power but never eclipsed a .500 slugging percentage – finding himself in the lower-.400s for most of his professional career.
Fangraphs gives him a 50/50 Power and 40/45 GamePower through their scouting reports. What do those numbers mean? Well, basically they are relatively standard scouting grades, on a scale of 20-80. Essentially, 50 is the average grade for a skill. Any number above 50 is above-average and any number below is below-average. Very hard to grasp, I know.
Sam Travis is anything but average
The grades say that Travis taps out at average power. A .375 slugging percentage in ample opportunities in Triple-A is not average. Neither is the .325 slugging percentage he posted in 83 plate appearances in the majors last year. Small sample-size caveat, I know. Just stick with me here.
This grade probably means there is room for improvement in the power department for him, especially relative to last year’s performance. His early spring power numbers seem to agree with this.
If he can hit the ball with a little bit more authority, Boston may have a decent first basemen on their hands (or as a trade chip).
He already has impeccable control of the strike zone, posting a 10.8 BB% and 16.7 K% in Triple-A Pawtucket last year. The average MLB player had a 8.5 BB% and 21.6 K% in 2017. Further, it was not as if this was a one-year aberration. In Double-A Portland two years ago, he yielded a 11.7 BB% and 12.1 K% in 281 plate appearances. The man literally almost walked more than he struck out!
Yes, if Travis changed his game to hit for more power, he would probably have to sacrifice his command of the plate a bit. Still, he is working with such high-quality plate discipline, it is hard to imagine him losing this aspect of his game completely.
Maximising his skillset
At 24, he has time to make the alterations that have the potential to maximize his skillset.
His Fangraphs’ fielding (40/45) and speed grade (40/30) suggest his bat is his calling card. Even so, he has the potential to be an average fielder but, as a first basemen, that is not saying too much. He did, however, swipe 19 bags between Single-A+ and Double-A in 2015. How many first basemen do you see doing that?
Regardless, he is a bat-first prospect and if he cannot hit for decent power going forward, then he may not be a “prospect” much longer. I wonder if Travis would benefit from trying to hit more flyballs, conforming with the popular flyball trend in baseball. If all else fails, this could be something he considers in the future.
Again, even though spring training stats have to be taken with a hefty grain of salt, the power Sam Travis has shown this spring is very encouraging. Unfortunately, pending an injury, it is hard to see him getting much playing time at the big league level in 2018. Mitch Moreland and Hanley Ramirez are both ahead of him on the first base depth chart. Making another appearance in this article, Blake Swihart is probably also ahead of him.
This is a critical year for Travis. More specifically, this is a critical year for his power abilities. No one can ever assuredly predict how a player will perform in a given at-bat, let alone an entire season. With that said, I am willing to bet we will see a better version of Sam Travis in 2018. At the very least, a more powerful one.