SAN ANTONIO–On April 23 of last year, San Antonio center fielder Travis Jankowski demonstrated why he might be the best defensive outfielder in the Padres’ system when he caught a deep drive to right center by Rougned Odor. Problem was, he crashed into the wall doing so.
While he robbed Odor of a triple, he also robbed himself of most of his season as he wasn’t able to return until Aug. 6.
“It was a pretty windy day and I didn’t take the best route to the ball so I ended up going straight into the wall with my left arm fully extended,” the 24-year old Jankowski said.
“So when I caught the ball with my glove hand I didn’t have time to bring my arm back and went in wrist first, which not only broke my wrist but I also ended up having surgery on my elbow for a displaced radial head.”
The injury not only nearly ended his career but could have left him with a permanent injury.
“I didn’t know how bad it was until afterward when the doctor told me that if the surgery had gone wrong, my left arm would have been permanently bent.”
But after a rehab that went better and quicker than expected, the man known as “Fred” to friends and family–because of his love of TV’s Fred Rogers–was able to return. He got in 13 games, ending up with a slash line of.240/.297/.300. While it was impressive to return as quickly as he did, those were not the numbers he or the Padres were expecting coming into 2014.
This season has been different. Not only is Jankowski back to full strength, but he is playing the best baseball of his career. He is among the Texas League leaders in batting average, stolen bases and on-base percentage, the categories that you want to see for a leadoff hitter. According to Padres’ player development director Sam Geaney, he’s “playing the hell out of center field” on defense.
Jankowski, a Texas League all-star, is hitting .312/.396/.391 with 23 steals in 29 attempts. He ranks fourth in the TL in batting and on-base percentage and is second in stolen bases and he was selected for the league all-star game on June 30.
Jankowski was selected by San Diego with the 44th pick of the 2012 draft out of Stony Brook, a supplemental first-rounder and the earliest ever selection for the Seawolves after helping lead Stony Brook to the 2012 College World Series. After making his debut in low Class A Fort Wayne, he really began to shine in 2013 in high Class A Lake Elsinore, hitting .286/.356/.355 with 71 stolen bases but also 96 strikeouts in 610 plate appearances.
“I’ve really been using the whole field more than in the past along with having a better two-strike approach,” Jankowski said for why he’s cut down on whiffs. “I know that even on a chopper to the left side, I still have a chance.”
The other significant difference has been his ability to pull the ball more, not necessarily for additional power, but to open up more of the field.
“He is working over the ball more and now he is in a better position to attack when they will bust him inside,” said Morgan Burkhart, the Missions’ hitting coach. “He is still good the other way and now he is able to turn on it.”
Jankowski, who’s from Lancaster, Pa., played football and baseball in high school and had more scholarship offers for football. In fact, Stony Brook was the only baseball offer he got. But he and his father were also convinced a future without 250-pound linebackers chasing him would better suit Travis.
“(Matt Senk) was the only coach that approached me and he wanted me to come out to Stony Brook in Long Island, which is about four hours from my home,” Jankowski said. “I went out there and really liked everything about the school and the program.”
After he hit .355 as a sophomore, Jankowski went to the Cape Cod League and won the MVP after leading the league in hits, runs and triples for the Bourne Braves.
“My coach there, Ted Reagan, got me shorter and quicker to the ball. We did lot of work in the cage and on the field, but he really helped me quite a bit.”
The Padres are paying extra attention because Justin Upton is a free agent and likely will leave at the end of the season. The Padres began the season without a bona fide center fielder and the 24-year-old Jankowski could put himself in contention for a spot next season by continuing his stellar play.
John Conniff is a contributor to FoxSportsSan Diego.com