Travis Jankowski Is Running Away With the Padres' Leadoff Job
Speed kills -- at least that's how the saying goes.
It's importance on the value of a player likely depends on who you ask, but it should be universally agreed upon that speed offers no downside.
Take Billy Hamilton for example. He has a .289 wOBA and a 75 wRC+ this season (the current league averages are .317 and 96, respectively), which based on those metrics, show he's been a below-average hitter this season. However, his speed has created 48 stolen bases and an elite UZR/150 in center field (18.6), which helped him post a 2.4 wins above replacement (fWAR), according to FanGraphs.
This makes him one of baseball's 65 most valuable players this season by fWAR, despite having a lower wOBA than any hitter ahead of him and being only one of two hitters with a wOBA below .300. The other being Kevin Pillar, another defense and speed guy.
This long-winded intro is attempting to show that speed -- even if it's a player's only tool -- can still provide value in today's game.
He Can Fly
.@Padres have FOUR steals of home in 2016 – Travis Jankowski has TWO of them. https://t.co/riNGgu5hi4 https://t.co/t9N6veKlY3 #StealAHome
— MLB (@MLB) August 11, 2016
Jankowski was able to use his speed -- and good instincts -- to catch Antonio Bastardo off guard and swipe home. That steal gave him 25 on the year, which ranks seventh despite having at least 146 fewer plate appearances than every player with more steals than him.
Steals are only way one of demonstrating a player's speed and the conclusion shouldn't be more steals equals more value. Especially since getting caught stealing is more detrimental than successfully stealing is beneficial.
Thankfully, we have another metric developed by FanGraphs called Base Running (BsR) that measures a player's performance on the bases outside of just steals, including things like taking an extra base.
Jankowski currently has a 4.5 BsR, which ranks 18th among hitters with at least 210 plate appearances this season. This puts him on a 162-game pace for an 8.4 BsR, which, for reference, no player reached last season.
Check out this clip and you'll see why Jankowski is among the top players by BsR.
Bringing the Lumber
He's been a top base-stealer with an impressive BsR, a combination that does not automatically go hand-in-hand. Three of the top-six players with the most steals this season have a BsR of 1.9 or below. Jankowski's speed has also helped lead to success at the plate.
He's slashing .266/.378/.348 with a.329 wOBA this season (219 plate appearances), and since taking over for the injured Jon Jay on June 21, Jankowski is hitting .281/.399/.359 with a .343 wOBA. It would be easy to look at his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and argue that since it's high (.387), his success is tied to luck.
However, there's more to the story than that. Among the top-30 players by BsR this season, they have an average BABIP of .320. Further narrowing this list to the hitters who also have at least double-digit steals, their average BABIP jumps to .329.
It's not as high as Jankowski's BABIP, but the point being that players with a similar skillset also have BABIP's that are above the current league average (.299) because their speed sometimes helps turn some balls that are typically outs into hits.
Playing to His Strengths
Jankowski seems to be aware of the type of hitter he is and is attempting to play to his strengths. He doesn't hit for power -- his ISO is just .082 and his slugging percentage (.348) is lower than his on-base percentage (.378) -- but he doesn't need to in order to be of value. Instead, he does what speedy leadoff hitters do best: hit the ball on the ground.
Jankowski owns a 3.78 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio this season, and his 3.67 ratio in the second-half ranks fifth-highest. Not only is he hitting a ton of balls on the ground, but he's also using the entire field.
He is pulling the ball 30.0% of the time, while going to the opposite field 31.7% of the time. For you non-math wizards out there, this means 38.3% of the balls Jankowski puts in play are up the middle. This kind of equal distribution suggest that he has one approach in mind when at the plate -- putting the ball in play.
Jankowski underwent a change in his batting stance around July 25, with him moving from an open stance to one that is closer to neutral. When asked about the change, Jankowski said, "It's pretty much just an adjustment to get me shorter to the ball. Just be more of a contact guy."
The adjustment seems to be working.
Controlling the Zone
Jankowski is currently on a nine-game hit streak -- which closely coincides with using his new batting stance -- hitting .471/.538/.559 with a .477 wOBA and eight steals. He also has a 12.8% walk rate during the streak, which is actually worse than his mark for the year (14.2%) and for the second-half (13.3%).
A lot of his success at drawing walks is the ability to layoff bad pitches, as simple as that sounds.
In the second-half, Jankowksi has swung at pitches outside of the strike zone just 22.3% of the time, which ranks sixth. This number is slightly higher at 24.7% during his hit streak, but it's still well below the league average of roughly 30%.
Spread the Glove
Some of this value is tied to Jankowski's skills as a fielder. It's a tiny sample size (435 2/3 innings), but his 30.0 UZR/150 ranks third among outfielders with at least 400 innings played this season. We shouldn't read much into a minuscule sample, but we've also seen the dude make some amazing grabs this year.
Jankowski has been great with his glove, and his patient, contact-focused approach at the plate has worked. However, he also owns just a 21.7% hard-hit rate in the second-half, which is the seventh-lowest clip among qualified hitters.
Relying on his speed will be necessary, as will be maintaining a high walk rate. That's the biggest difference right now between Jankowski and guys like Hamilton or Pillar, who own low walk rates (7.0% and 2.9%, respectively) and low on-base percentages (.310 and .292, respectively), and thus low wOBA's (.289 and .292 respectively).
Extrapolating Jankowski's current fWAR to a 162-game pace would put him in line for a 4.8 fWAR, something only 23 hitters reached last season. His speed does kill, but it's also being used in combination with a mindful approach at the plate. That pairing has proved to be valuable for both the Padres and the 25-year-old rookie.