Heading into this season, you would be making a safe bet if you put money on a Toronto Blue Jay winning Rookie of the Year honors. After a sensational season from rookie Marcus Stroman last season, the Jays were poised to make an even bigger youth splash with a rotation looking to employ two prospects in Aaron Sanchez and Daniel Norris and an outfield now sporting highly-projectable center fielder Dalton Pompey. A month into the season and your bet still stands solid, only not because any of the three rookies in the lead out of the gate. The best rookie in baseball has been Devon Travis, a Jays second baseman who used his play in the spring to unexpectedly steal the starting spot from underwhelming incumbent Munenori Kowasaki. At 5’9”, 195 lbs. Travis projects as a prototypical slap-hitting middle infielder, who excited only minimally because of a high contact rate that will also bring fears of a low strikeout, low walk approach. Yet, his contact skills alone make his non-existence on most radars an oversight.
Involved in the off season trade that sent center fielder Anthony Gose out of Toronto, Travis spent his first two professional years in the Tigers system posting classic middle infielder stat lines in the minors, with low .300 averages, stolen bases in the teens and minimal, though not imperceptible, power. Entering Jays camp for the first time, without playing a single game over Double-A ball, all Travis did was rake. He hit .359 by accumulating 23 hits in 64 at bats with six doubles and seven RBIs. It was tremendous, but it was classic Travis. Surprisingly, though, his numbers in the early part of the regular season haven’t lived and died with his ability to put the bat on the ball, something which he has admittedly done consistently as well. Currently his slugging percentage is a lofty .685 against a .413 OBP, and when combined with an equally pumped up .356 average he sits on a gargantuan .329 isolated power percentage. In his first 80 big league plate appearances he’s homered and doubled six times. Using our Total Base Value formula, Travis has sat in and around the top ten all month and heading into Wednesday’s action he’s gaining 1.063 bases every time he steps up to the plate, good for 5th in baseball.
The one flaw in Travis’ game has been a strikeout rate of 16.3 and walk rate of 6.3. However, the strikeout to walk problem has been inconsistent with Travis’ profile, so finding a place in the Jays order for a guy like him might prove tricky as he inevitably regresses slightly. His play thus far has all but assured that he will need to be featured somewhere higher than 8th. His contact abilities may push him consistently to the two hole, though on-base issues might grow if the walks don’t go up. Regardless, Travis is an upgrade over any of the options the Jays had last season and thus far the one position that looked dubious on the depth chart is getting consistent production. It’s conceivable that Travis’ numbers are bloated by the extremely finicky lineup that surrounds him and that always difficult BABIP inflation. As pitchers learn his cold zones, he may be forced to adjust and put his contact skills to the test. For now, a 78% contact percentage on balls out of the strike zone is sustainable but nothing to be over the moon about. Travis’ numbers have all the makings of a hot start aberration, even when considering this type of play has carried over from spring. What we do know, however, is the Jays’ mix of prime players, veterans and youngsters bodes well from this season and at least the near future. If a guy like Travis can settle into be the Cano-lite that he looks like currently, they will have a middle infield chip that so many teams currently covet, especially a Jays team who hasn’t had a viable 2B since Roberto Alomar.
Other off season Rookie of the Year candidates like Pompey and company, along with Tijuan Walker and Stephen Souza Jr., have been good to not so good, but in line with typical early season rookie inconsistencies. Travis, on the other hand, has continued to do what he does well while also adding an element of production to his game by taking advantage of the pitches he sees in a challenging lineup.