Welcome back to the One Big Question series here at Over The Monster. For those who weren’t around for last year’s series or simply forgot what it entails — there’s a lot going on in the world today, so don’t be ashamed! — here’s a brief reminder. Every day, Monday through Friday, for the next eight weeks we’ll profile a new member of Red Sox 40-man roster. Rather than simply going through a simple profile of their overall game and what they offer the team, we’ll focus on the one question that could very well dictate how their season will go in 2018. In order to keep the order objective and avoid side conversations like ranking the players on the roster, we’ll go straight down the roster in alphabetical order by position. In other words, we’ll go by how things are ordered here. If you miss any editions or would like to look back on some of last year’s, you can see all of them here. Today, we’re looking at Sam Travis.
The Question: Is 2018 going to be the year in which he shows off some in-game power?
Generally speaking, these questions for any given player is unique to the upcoming season. Sometimes it’s based on an apparent anomaly from the previous year or the possibility of a bounce-back after a down season or the effects of a lingering injury. Whatever the case, I attempt to make it a question that should be able to find an answer at some point in the coming year. Sam Travis has bucks that trend, as his question this year is the one that has been surrounding him since he became a professional, and it’s poised to be the question we ask about him until he either gives us a “yes” answer or is off the roster. Hopefully, it will be the former when we try to figure out if this will finally be the year in which the young first baseman starts to show off some of his raw power in game situations.
A lot of the focus around Travis is about his flaws, which can be an unfair way to look at young players at time, and is something that I readily admit I’m guilty of. We’ll spend plenty of time looking what has been holding Travis back as a player at the highest level, but there’s a reason he’s even on the 40-man in the first place. Travis is a really good hitter with a good swing, a strong understanding of the strike zone and an ability to consistently get good wood on the baseball. The former second round pick made his way through the minors quickly because he was able to square up lesser, minor-league pitchers without breaking a sweat. Scouts all pretty much agree that he has a good swing and a good hit tool and can play a solid first base even if he’s never going to win any Gold Gloves. It’s not a superstar-like package, but it’s the reason why the organization has seemingly developed a liking for the young infielder and why prospect lists have consistently ranked him relatively highly in the team’s rankings.
Of course, despite all of the good about Travis, he has still been held back by an undeniable lack of power at the high levels of the minors and in the majors. I’ve never personally gotten a chance to see Travis in batting practice or any other non-game situation that may present itself, but scouts have given indications that his raw power is real and likely above-average. That only matters to a point, though, and Travis hasn’t utilized that in games. It’s held him back in a big way, as it’s hard to be a good regular first baseman in the majors without at least average power. To do that, you need to be an elite defensive player and/or have an elite hit tool. Travis is fine in both areas, but his tools don’t suggest he can get by on either of those tools or a combination of both. He needs to find a way to tap into his raw power when the action starts.
Obviously, this is not a new problem for Travis. He did show a little bit of pop in 2014 immediately after being drafted, but once he started his first full season in High-A things really dissipated. The righty has had three minor-league seasons under his belt and has put up the following Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) marks: .145, .162, .105. In an 83-plate-appearance stint in the majors last year — an admittedly limited sample — he posted an ISO of just .072. Not great! For context, the league-average first baseman posted an ISO of .172 in 2017. Now, the landscape of the league has changed in the last 18 months or so, but the point that Travis has lacked the power needed at his position is obvious.
The bad news is that he hasn’t shown any signs of turning it around. Sure, he’s had a good spring so far this year, but he’s had good springs for a couple years in a row now. There are things we can take away from spring training performances at times, but at this point we have to know to take Travis’ spring numbers in particular with a grain of salt. Last season was a career-worst in terms of power and a large part of that was that he trended the wrong way with his batted ball profile. Travis hit the ball on the ground more than half the time in both Pawtucket and Boston in 2017.
The good news is that Travis could benefit from a new coaching staff that will hopefully place an emphasis on launch angle and power in general. As I said before, all indications are that the 24-year-old does have the raw power to put up better numbers than he has as a pro, but he hasn’t been able to utilize it. The hope is that a tweak can be made in his mechanics to allow for more loft, and that is exactly what he has been working on this winter.
The production has been there this spring, and while I’ve been pretty clear that I won’t let that influence my thoughts on Travis as a hitter, it is at least better than the alternative. The upcoming season is a big one for the first baseman as he tries to prove he has a future in this league. If Travis is truly going to be able to make his way into a regular role somewhere in the majors, whether it be Boston or elsewhere, he’ll need to find a way to tap into the raw power and put the ball over the fence a little more often.