Not quite a year removed from the ACL blowout that cost him the final four months of last season, Sam Travis — after some early struggles this year — gives every indication that he is now back.
The same couldn’t be said at the start of his season with Triple A Pawtucket. Travis looked like a player driven to make up for lost time, rushing to do everything that he could not do following his June surgery. The resulting .233/.313/.333 line for April — with strikeouts in nearly one-third of his plate appearances — was anything but representative of the talents that have him on the doorstep of the big leagues.
“When he’s not all pull-oriented and starts working to right field more, that’s when you start to see the true potential with his bat,” said PawSox manager Kevin Boles. “He’s an aggressive hitter by nature. We know that. [But] he was expanding the zone quite a bit. The effort level ticked up quite a bit.”
Travis acknowledged that his approach at the start of the year was uncharacteristic. Instead of waiting for pitches to drive, he started hunting for them. The results were poor.
“Everyone likes to get off to a good start, get the season rolling. When you don’t get off to a hot start, you might try to do too much. I was just trying to do too much,” said Travis. “I was definitely chasing some pitches . . . When you’re chasing the pitcher’s pitch, that’s what he’s trying to get you to do. You get yourself out. When you stick to your plan, stick to your approach, get good pitches to hit, things are going to turn around. It all goes back to thinking middle, thinking right-center, letting the ball get deep. You try to hit it out of his hand, you’ll be out front. You recognize pitches, let the ball get deep, and things will work out.”
Things are indeed now working out for the 2014 second-round selection. Back in the rhythm of the season, Travis is once again sending rockets all over the field. The latest evidence came on Thursday, when the 23-year-old went 5 for 6 (his first career five-hit game) with two doubles.
Thanks to a scorching stretch that has yielded four straight multihit games, six in eight contests, and seven in his last 10 games, Travis is now hitting .299 with a .359 OBP and .479 slugging mark — including marks of .368/.410/.632 in 14 games this month, with three of his four homers. After a period of reacclimation in his return from injury, he now looks like himself.
“When you miss that amount of time, very rarely do you just step back in. You’re still trying to find out who you are,” said PawSox hitting coach Rich Gedman. “I think Sam is probably stronger than he’s ever been, but he wasn’t baseball strong yet. Little by little, it looks like the muscles are starting to loosen up. His swing isn’t getting cut off. His baseball swing is starting to show up a little more . . . He wanted to be right back where he was. To me, it just takes time. You can see the field starting to open up for him again.”
That approach, in turn, once again has him looking like a hitter who may be able to contribute to the Red Sox should the need for a righthanded bat arise — though with the need for further defensive development.
“He knows he can’t just be a one-dimensional player. He’s going to have to play defense. We’re seeing some signs of improvement. Could it continue to get better? Yes. It has to,” said Boles. “[But] he works harder than anybody we have. He’s on a mission.
“The sky is the limit with him. You see some limitations, but he’ll work through barriers. He doesn’t want to be OK. He wants to be really good. He wants to be great.”
Chavis in a groove
Michael Chavis’s three-homer game for High A Salem on April 19 turned heads, but what the 21-year-old has done since then is no less impressive. Through 29 games, he’s enjoying one of the best seasons in the minors, hitting .343 with a .427 OBP, .648 slugging mark, and seven homers — a staggering step forward for a player who hit .231/.294/.399 over two seasons in Single A Greenville in 2015 and ’16. A player who has always shown considerable raw power is, for the first time in his career, showing an approach to take advantage of it.
How to explain his leap forward? Perhaps no one is in better position to evaluate that question than Nelson Paulino, Chavis’s hitting coach with Greenville in 2015 who is now working again with the third baseman in Salem. Paulino suggested that an improved, more compact swing coupled with greater body control and an increased willingness to focus on driving the ball from gap to gap has allowed Chavis to wait for his pitch rather than expanding the strike zone early in counts.
“He’s a power hitter, but I’m trying to help him, especially now, to stay to the big part of the field. When he focuses on the big part of the field, he can make adjustments easily on breaking balls,” said Paulino. “He’s more selective right now. During the game, he’s focused every [at-bat]. He knows how the pitchers are trying to get him out. He’s being more selective. That’s the reason his swing path is much better now.”
A year ago, Paulino worked with Yoan Moncada and Rafael Devers in Salem, one year after working with that duo (along with Chavis) in Greenville. The hitting coach sees similarities to what those top prospects did in stretches in 2016 and the impact Chavis has shown during his run this season.
“Devers, Moncada, and Chavis now, yes, there are some similarities,” said Paulino. “It’s a good groove I see Chavis in right now.”
Tracking Devers’s arc
Devers is still sizzling in Double A Portland, with a .336 average, .406 OBP, and .588 slugging mark along with seven homers in 33 games. In its own right, that is a remarkable performance. Given that Devers is just 20, it is stunning.
Dave Cameron of Fangraphs identified 43 minor leaguers in the last 10 years who opened their age-20 seasons in Double A. Of those, Devers’s early offensive numbers were ahead of all at the same age and career stage except for Carlos Correa and Giancarlo Stanton — both of whom not only reached the big leagues but excelled by the middle of that season.