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What’s Going on with Devon Travis’ Defense?

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Toronto Blue Jays Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps a little hidden in the Blue Jays’ resounding win over the Mariners on Tuesday was the manner in which Seattle scored their first runs to take a 2-0 lead in the third inning. First, Guillermo Hereida grounded a ball towards second which was bobbled by Devon Travis who appeared to be rushing to start a potential double play. Instead, Travis was unable to make an out. Two batters later, Robinson Cano hit a hard grounder into the Blue Jays’ shift on the right side which ricocheted off of Travis’ knee and into the right field corner. Two runs scored and Cano ended up on third. In my opinion, some favorable home cooking (though this series feels much more like a home series for the Jays) led to both of these plays being scored as hits. I think Travis was deserving of two errors in the inning.

The Jays would quickly score 8 runs in the top of the fourth inning which helped to expedite the process of putting the defensive gaffes into the rear-view mirror. However it seemed to me that those plays continued a somewhat alarming trend as it relates to Devon Travis’ fielding. I hadn’t yet looked at the stats but my eye test told me that we’ve been seeing Travis booting some routine plays at an increasing rate. His defensive struggles also seemed to fit the timing of his hand injury which forced him to sit out some games and ultimately get a cortisone shot in late August. So, let’s look at some data to see if it lines up with what I think I’m seeing.

Background and Methodology

I decided to use a pretty simple statistic, fielding percentage, which is easily accessible on a game-by-game basis. To get a more meaningful view of the data, I combined games into 10- and 30-game splits. Travis has played 90 total games at second which worked out nicely. The subjectivity of errors (see last night) is a bit of an issue with fielding percentage but it should work just fine for this mini-analysis.

For background, Devon Travis hurt his ring finger on his right (throwing) hand sometime in mid-August. There wasn’t a single event that caused the injury and Travis reportedly started feeling some pain in a series against the Yankees from August 15-17. He ended up sitting out some games beginning on August 22 before returning to the line-up on August 27. From what I read, he received a cortisone shot on Sunday, August 21.

Analysis (10- and 30-game splits)

I went to Baseball Reference and grabbed Devon Travis’ defensive statistics and combined individual games into 10- and 30-game splits. First, let’s look at the 10-day splits.

Devon Travis 2016 Fielding Percentage

I added a couple of other data points to the graph. For reference, I added the average fielding percentage of all MLB second basemen. Secondly, I added a bar which shows what his fielding percentage would have been in the final data point if both of his misplays last night were ruled errors instead of hits. I’ll admit some confirmation bias on my part, but him booting those baseballs yesterday is what led me to start this analysis so I wanted to took a look at the effect it would have had.

Now, let’s look at the 30-day split. Conveniently, the second data point started on August 13 which coincides pretty closely with Travis’ reported hand injury.

Devon Travis 2016 Fielding %, 30-Game Split

In both of the graphs, we see a definite negative trend in Devon Travis’ fielding percentage and the timing seems to line up pretty well with his injury. For the season, Travis has a 97.27% fielding percentage, but since August 13 it has fallen to 94.96% (93.62% if you add two errors from yesterday). As the Jays are in the midst of a fight for the playoffs and potential postseason run, this trend is definitely concerning to me. Last night withstanding, the Jays have struggled to score lately which places even more of an emphasis on pitching and defense.

What To Do About It

This is where things get tricky. As with most things baseball, it is pretty easy to point out flaws and problems but much more difficult to solve those issues. There are a few options for the Blue Jays, none of them ideal.

  1. Continue running Travis out to 2B and hope he returns to form. Travis’ fielding was a non-issue early in the year. His injury is to his throwing hand so plays like the Cano ball that went off his knee yesterday should have nothing to do with the injury. This would keep the DH spot open so players like Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion can cycle through.
  2. Move Travis to DH. This would move Ryan Goins or Darwin Barney into second base so on paper this should help us out defensively. However, the insertion of Goins/Barney into the batting order brings some downside. That said, with the play of some of our players the offensive gap between them and a Goins or Barney has probably closed some. Travis at full-time DH would move Edwin to 1B and Bautista to RF meaning Smoak and one of Saunders/Upton Jr would take a more permanent seat on the bench. This would sting less than earlier in the year for sure.
  3. Sit Travis down. Despite his defensive issues, Travis has been our hottest bat. I don’t think this is really an option.

Look forward to seeing your comments on how the Jays should handle this situation. During the third inning last night I had a flashback to Elvis Andrus’ game-five performance last year which scares the heck out of me with the importance of every single game for the Jays from here on out. That said, I don’t see enough in this data to suggest a definitive link between Travis’ injury and his fielding problems but I do think it shows something is going on. Maybe it is simply a confidence thing that will go away with a few good defensive games. I did notice in the data that his errors are bunched together:

  • 1 error on July 27
  • 2 errors on Aug 3
  • 1 error on Aug 9
  • 3 errors in 2 games (Aug 19-20)
  • 1 error on Sept 2
  • 3 errors in 3 games (Sept 6-9)
  • Last night’s 2 misplays

What do you think?