PHOENIX—A year after being drafted in the 13th round, Tigers second base prospect Devon Travis posted one of the top statistical seasons in the minor leagues this year, narrowly missing out on the minor league batting title. His cumulative .351/.418/.518 line across both Class A levels was 65 percent (weighted runs created) better than the league averages and the second best of any full-season middle infielder.
A three-year starter at Florida State, Travis exemplified the Seminoles' offensive approach—as Florida State has led the ACC in walk rate six of the last eight seasons—with just as many walks as strikeouts and an ACC-leading 50 doubles over his final two seasons in Tallahassee, despite battling injuries.
Despite his consistent offensive production, Travis went in the 13th round, signing for an above-slot $200,000, in part because of a tough profile as a 5-foot-9, 185-pound righthanded-hitting college infielder likely limited to second base.
Travis, 22, began the 2013 season in the Midwest League, where he walked more than he whiffed and struck out in less than 10 percent of his plate appearances, posting a .352/.430/.486 line.
Upon a promotion to the Florida State League, Travis, who has a strong, compact build, posted an isolated slugging percentage (.210) nearly twice the league average (.115) and hit 10 home runs in 237 plate appearances. Although some scouts grade his power as a 30 in the 20-80 scouting scale, Travis finished with 16 home runs in home run-suppressing ballparks in two pitcher's leagues.
Travis, an above-average straight-line runner with good instincts, stole 25 bases in 30 attempts.
Travis earned the Tigers minor league player of the year honors for his strong first professional campaign and was sent to the Arizona Fall League.
He has made a substantial overhaul to his hitting since college that helped enable his season. Before Wednesday's AFL game, I had the opportunity to sit down with Travis to discuss his season and his altered mechanics. Travis looked at side-by-side photos of his collegiate and professional swings in three separate phases—his stance, his load/stride and his swing/follow through—and described the differences in the following interview.
Differences as a professional: Travis has a much narrower, more upright stance with a more even weight distribution in his lower half after being more spread out in college. His hands are starting well below his shoulder after starting significantly higher in school, and he ditched his open stance in favor of one squared with the pitcher
"The most difficult adjustment to pro ball was getting to the inside pitch. So I had to figure out a way to help me to get there. I couldn't figure it out last year when I got to Connecticut (the Tigers' New York-Penn League affiliate). It was like everybody was throwing 90-plus on the inside corner and I couldn't get to it. So this offseason I went home to my hitting coach and I told him I was really struggling to get to the inside pitch with the wooden bat. So he asked me how I have been holding my hands and I showed him up here (shoulder height). And he said 'That's tough.' So the first thing he told me was to lower my hands and make my barrel more vertical to the ground. It was a little weird at first and my hands would drift up a little bit.
"Instead of focusing on trying to pull the inside pitch, I focused on the middle of the field, and the barrel will take care of itself. Still to this day it is a pitch I struggle with, but I am thinking more about the middle of the field. When I tried to pull the inside pitch my front shoulder flied open pretty quick, and if I don't get the barrel there, I struggle. I squared my stance to work on keeping my front shoulder closed. I used to be open and wider and it made more sense with the metal bat because you can still get a little juice on it even if you don't hit it well. Now with a wooden bat if you don't get it on the barrel, especially with them throwing 95, you are in trouble. Getting ready on time and getting ready early is something I shoot for."
Differences as a professional: Travis' load is not as deep, his bat angle is now more vertical, pointing at 1 o'clock, as opposed to 2 o'clock in college, and his stride is shorter, softer and more direct to the pitcher
"As you can see in college, that fastball was in there and that pitch was pretty tough because I almost wrapped a little bit. My (front) arm was a little locked and it was tough to get to the inside pitch. If I did get to it, it was more luck than anything. So instead of trying to go so far back with my load, I am trying to go more upright than anything, so it is a quicker path to the ball. The bat angle is more vertical. So that is definitely the biggest adjustment."
Differences as a professional: Travis' bat path is more direct, as it had length in college because of his deep load. His front foot is getting down earlier, and his lower half has better balance with a better weight transfer. He would occasionally hit with a soft front side because of how wide his stance was, but his front side is much firmer as a professional.
"In college my load would get so far back that everything would have to fly forward and open. But here, because guys are throwing harder, I wanted to minimize the motion and get my hands going back a little. For me now it's just a matter of getting my hands ready in a comfortable position and taking a direct path to the ball. I was not as balanced in college."
Although his walk rate fell in the FSL, Travis maintained a high contact rate and attributes his advanced approach to his tutelage in Tallahassee.
"The biggest thing at Florida State is that they get their guys to believe in the system that is in place," Travis said. "If I am not being patient and getting good pitches, especially being a smaller guy, I can handle (that) I am going to struggle a lot because I don't have the extra pop of the bigger guys to be able to hit pitches that are out of the zone and get them through holes."
His offensive outburst was complimented by strong keystone defense. Although minor league error totals only tell part of the story defensively, Travis displayed soft, dependable hands, finishing among the MWL (.982) and FSL (.979) league leaders in fielding percentage. Couple Travis' soft hands with his above-average speed and range, and average arm, Travis could be an above-average defender.