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2019 in Review: Sam Travis

He had one good stretch, but overall it was a bad year.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to our 2019 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2019. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player every day. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2020 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list, too, and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we focus on Sam Travis.

2019 in One Sentence

Sam Travis had a stretch where it looked like he may have turned a corner with the bat, but ultimately his end-of-season numbers don’t look all that different from any other year.

The Positives

I guess we have to start with that stretch I mentioned above, because even I, a noted Sam Travis Hater, was starting to buy in during this stretch. The stretch to which I refer began on June 30 and ran through August 12, which seems like a really long time but in reality was still only 70 plate appearances for the part-time player. He was raking in this stretch, though, finishing up hitting .323/.386/.629 for a 155 wRC+. During that stretch, among 311 players who had at least 60 plate appearances, Travis’ wRC+ was tied for 26th with Yoán Moncada, Ronald Acuña and José Ramírez. Pretty un-Sam Travis-like company! The power stands out the most here, but he was also drawing walks at a much higher rate than usual, too.

More generally, and particularly during that stretch, Travis started to look like a guy who could at least hit some left-handed pitching. Now, I’ll get the elephant out of the way first. His overall numbers against lefties were still pretty bad! He hit just .221/.279/.400 for a 66 wRC+. That’s 34 percent worse than league-average, which kinda stinks! However, for one thing during that stretch when he was clicking 63 percent of his plate appearances came against lefties and he had a 163 wRC+ against them. That’s good! Furthermore, looking at his overall numbers he should have done better. He was hurt badly by a .229 batting average on balls in play, but it was only 104 plate appearances. There’s a lot of noise there. If you look at his batted ball data, and particularly his line drive rate and hard-hit rate, it seems he should have at least been up around at .275-.295 BABIP. In a sample this small, that makes a bigger difference than you’d think.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Boston Red Sox Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

We’re going to keep dealing in very small samples here, because unfortunately that is the best way to put Travis’ 2019 in a positive light. He was a very, very good weapon off the bench, though. Pinch hitting is one of those things that is really hard to judge. Everyone who played at the highest levels always talks about how hard the job is, and it’s hard to argue with the logic. You sit on the bench all night and then come up cold in what is often among the most important moments in the game. Good luck! The issue is it’s really hard to figure out who is actually good here because, given how few pinch hitting situations there are (particularly for an American League team), the sample just isn’t big enough. You really need seasons upon seasons of data to really start to believe it. Anyway, Travis was a really good pinch hitter in 2019. He came up in 14 of these situations and hit .300/.500/.700 for a 179 wRC+. His three extra-base hits in these situations made up 27 percent of his season total in a whopping nine percent of his total plate appearances. Does this mean Travis is a legitimately good pinch hitter? Who’s to say?!

The Negatives

We’re talking about Sam Travis, so we have to start this talking about the power. This has always been the big knock against Travis, and this is why I never really bought in even when he was a relatively highly ranked prospect in the system. It is so hard to succeed as a first baseman without power, and Travis still isn’t hitting for it. Even with that stretch where he put up a .206 Isolated Power, he still finished the year with a .167 ISO in the majors. That seems respectable, at least, but then you remember it was the year of the juiced ball and that was still pretty significantly below average. Even in Triple-A he had a .157 ISO which was much higher than his previous two runs at that level, but they also had the juiced ball. His OPS was about 70 points higher at Triple-A in 2019 compared to 2017, but his wRC+ was actually a point lower.

Anyway, back to Travis’ power. The issue is what it has always been and that’s just that he can’t get the ball up off the ground. Not everybody needs to be a launch angle darling, but at some point something has to give. Travis is not an elite contact hitter nor does he draw a ton of walks (more on that in a bit), so if he’s also not hitting for power it’s just not going to work. Well, it’s really hard to hit for power if you keep hitting the ball into the ground. A juiced ball is just a normal baseball if it’s killin’ worms, ya know? According to FanGraphs’ data, Travis hit grounders on 55 percent of batted balls in 2019, which is actually a bit lower than 2018 but still too high. Among the 411 players who had at least 150 plate appearances in 2019, only 12 hit grounders at a higher rate. That’s not a group you want to be among, particularly when you are a first baseman who sometimes plays left field and most of the rest of the group are middle infielders who come off the bench.

Now, the issue for Travis isn’t really catching up with fastballs or doing damage against the heat. He’s not an all-world hitter against fastballs or anything, but he does well enough. Instead, he just gets eaten alive by anything else. According to Baseball Savant, he whiffed on a quarter of swings against breaking balls and almost a third of swings against offspeed pitches. Against breaking balls, his expected wOBA was .223 and his actual wOBA was .274. For offspeed pitches it was .257 and .212, respectively. He doesn’t need to be an All-Star against secondaries, but he can’t be nonexistent, either.

Finally, I do want to talk a little about his lack of walks. It just doesn’t fit with his profile. The power is the thing that gets the most focus, particularly from me, but the lack of walks is a killer, too. The league-average walk rate in 2019 jumped to almost nine percent, but Travis walked only seven percent of the time. Obviously part of that is simply pitchers not being afraid to attack him. He’s only seeing strikes about half the time, though. It’s a high rate, but not obscene. Instead, he just can’t stop swinging at pitches out of the zone, which goes back to those issues against secondaries. Again, if he’s not going to hit for power he needs an 11+ percent walk rate to make it in this league. That doesn’t look likely at this point.

The Big Question

Is there even a role left on the Red Sox for Sam Travis?

Well, there was for 2019, but that was at least partially due to injuries to Steve Pearce and Michael Chavis. The Red Sox were pretty desperate for right-handed at bats coming off the bench this past season, and Travis benefitted from that. I’m not sure that will be the case next year.

2020 Vision

Like I said, I’m not sure there is room for Travis at this point. He is now out of minor-league options, which obviously complicates matters plenty. The Red Sox still have Chavis and they have Bobby Dalbec coming up, both of whom are presumably more desirable as right-handed corner infielders. Travis’ ability to play left helps, but A) both Chavis and Dalbec could theoretically learn to play out there if Travis did and B) they can find a cheap, more productive backup outfielder who can play left field at Fenway. The truth is that 2019 was a big year for Travis’ future with the organization, and he didn’t exactly pass the test.