The Padres Outfield Situation and Travis Jankowski

The Padres started the 2018 season with multiple questions, one of them was “How do seven outfielders fit into six spots?”. The protagonists were: Manuel Margot, Franchy Cordero, Jose Pirela (who technically can play other positions but isn’t great at it), Hunter Renfroe, Matt Szczur, Travis Jankowski and the newest addition to the outfield mix, Wil Myers.

The injury to Franchy Cordero meant the problem was made easier for GM AJ Preller and manager Andy Green, making them choose between Matt Szczur and Travis Jankowski for that final spot. Szczur was selected, due to his Spring Training performance being better than Jankowski and the fact the Padres like to use him for pinch-running and defensive replacement opportunities. Szczur was/is also out of minor league options.

Roll forward to today and the Padres could be about to face that problem once again. Hunter Renfroe started his rehab assignment in El Paso on the 17th May and is expected back by the end of the month. An obvious drop from the 25-man will be Franmil Reyes. The giant sized prospect has been destroying AAA with his homerun power, but he has options and hasn’t exactly set San Diego on fire in his short stint so far. There is still some time for him to impress, but that time is limited.

So what happens when Wil Myers comes back? He’s currently on the disabled list with an oblique injury and the Padres have said they aren’t expecting him back before June. So there is still plenty of time for another injury or other problems to rise up.

In terms of performance on the field, this time the man in the power seat is the unlikely candidate of Travis Jankowski. Jankowski is hitting well, tearing up the basepaths and being an outright defensive wizard.

Jankowski was a first round draft pick (Number 12)  by the Padres in 2012. His draft report at the time read:

One of the best athletes in this draft class, Jankowski stands out for his speed, bat and defense…he’s a plus runner who plays above-average defense in center field with an average arm…He has a knack for putting the ball in play and has the speed to beat out infield hits. He had 30 stolen bases in 35 attempts through 47 games and doesn’t strike out much (15 in 177 at-bats).

He had never really lived up to the hype prior to the 2018 season. Below are some selected categories for his performances from 2015 – 2017. HR aren’t included as he has five in his career.

Note – if you’re viewing the post on your phone and the tables don’t look right, turn the phone for landscape mode.

Year PA SB B% K% AVG OBP wRC+ Def fWAR
2015 96 2 4.2% 25% .211 .245 62 -0.8 -0.1
2016 383 30 11.0% 26.1% .245 .332 83 6.9 1.5
2017 87 7 10.3% 32.2% .187 .282 43 0.9 -0.1

Considering he wasn’t supposed to strike out much, he has been striking out a lot. For a hitter that is supposed to get the ball in play, then beat the throw to first, he hadn’t much. At all.

Until 2018.

Year PA SB B% K% AVG OBP wRC+ Def fWAR
2018 82 7 11.0% 19.5% .342 .415 145 1.2 0.9

Strikeouts are down and contact is up. So what is Jankowski doing differently?

Well first of all the question has to be, is it sustainable? Probably not, his career Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP – quick reminder, below .300 is loosely deemed “unlucky”, above .300 is loosely deemed “lucky”) has fluctuated as such:

  • 2015 – .266
  • 2016 – .343
  • 2017 – .298
  • 2018 – .429 (!)

He’s going to see some regression, and we’ll probably see his average drop. However, what has changed in his approach to bring about the reduction in strikeouts? Working with the 2016 stats and 2018 stats makes sense as that 2016 is his only full season so far. The 2017 numbers are similar to 2016.

Quick stat explanation: when a pitch is thrown it’s deemed either in the zone or outside the zone. O-Swing is swings on a pitch outside the zone, Z-Swing is swings on a pitch inside the zone. The same is true for O-Contact / Z-Contact. This data is from Brooks Baseball and is deemed a little more reliable than the automatic results.

Year O-Swing % Z-Swing % O-Contact% Z-Contact%
2016 22.3% 57.9% 64.5% 88.1%
2018 14.8% 54.8% 47.8% 92.9%

The headlines are that he’s swinging at less outside the strike zone and making more contact inside the strike zone.

So how can pitchers beat him? Well, they shouldn’t bother too much outside the zone anymore, as he isn’t chasing as much as he was. So where can they go?

He’s almost running a letterbox hot zone at the moment. Anything in those middle eight squares is falling for a hit. Some of this may be BABIP luck, some of it may not. So if pitchers want to go for Jankowski, they need to hit the top and bottom of the zone.

What about types of pitches that Jankowski is swinging and missing? The excellent Brooks Baseball gives us that information in an easy on the eye chart.

He’s cut down on swing and misses on fastballs by 12% and a 20% reduction in swings and misses for breaking balls. Is he still struggling on a certain type of pitch? Here is the K% data for the different pitches over the last 3 years.

Year Fastball K% Breaking K% Offspeed K%
2016 22.5% 44.0% 17.4%
2017 31.7% 44.4% 0%
2018 21.2% 14.3% 28.6%

His “% of type of pitches seen” rate has stayed roughly the same over these three years, so it’s not like he’s simply seeing less of a certain type. He may be striking out more on offspeed pitches, but his breaking ball K rate is way down. This significant change is making all the difference in his ability to get the ball in play and stop chasing the breaking pitch.

Jankowski has done a great job of adjusting his game to ensure he shouldn’t be sent back to the minors. He has worked on his swing, changed his approach and continued his aggression on the base paths and defensively. The big problem for Jankowski is that he has options, Minor League options that is.

The only Padres outfielder that doesn’t have minor league options is Matt Szczur and as discussed before, the Padres like him and won’t want to see him claimed for nothing in the event of a DFA.

Another option for the Padres would be to send Manuel Margot down to Triple-A. Margot is having a torrid time in San Diego and probably needs a stint in El Paso to try to rebuild that once solid reputation as a future star.

As seen in a recent @PadresUK tweet — using the excellent application provided by @Smada_BB — Manny Margot has been trending down for some time.

He sits at the bottom of most offensive categories for those that have played the outfield in San Diego this year. Defensively he has not been his usual self, having a negative defensive rating when he usually trends highly.

Knowing the Padres, they will probably opt for either Jose Pirela or Jankowski to make room for Wil Myers when he returns in/after June. If Jankowski wants to be taken seriously as a hitter and not just a speedy base runner with above average fielding abilities, he needs to continue as he has done so far this season. Or he’ll be back on the bus to El Paso quicker than — yeah I’m going there — quicker than he can round the bases.

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