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Is Travis Jankowski for real?

He probably won’t lead the Phillies in OPS all season, but he has earned the right to start in center field for the time being.

MLB: Game One-Miami Marlins at Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies’ golden hair surprise: Travis Jankowski.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

It seems like everyone’s new favorite Phillies player these days is Travis Jankowski, and it’s not hard to see why.

In addition to his gorgeous blonde locks, Jankowski is a hometown guy, a capable center fielder, and he’s absolutely tearing the cover off the ball.

Travis Jankowski is from Lancaster, PA, and he grew up watching the Phillies almost every night on TV. He idolized Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley. Once, early in Jankowski’s career, Chase Utley complimented his swing, and Jankowski said it was “the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me.” In other words, he’s one of us. (He even went to grade school with former The Good Phight Blog Lord Justin Klugh!)

Phillies center fielders have combined for a .688 OPS this season. Travis Jankowski has a .974 OPS*. And that .688 OPS includes Jankowski’s performance. Odúbel Herrera seemed to have locked down the center field job in May, when he hit .292 with an .804 OPS, but from June 1 onwards, Herrera is hitting just .220 with a .636 OPS. Since he stepped up to replace the injured Herrera, Travis Jankowski has been an absolute godsend. Hopefully, he will continue to earn starts in center field even after Herrera returns from the injured list. How can you not love this man?

While we’re talking about Jankowski’s statistics, let’s look beyond that .974 OPS. His triple slash line is .375/.474/.500. He has four stolen bases in four attempts. His walk rate is 15% and his strikeout rate is 13.3%. That means his BB/K ratio is an absurd 1.13 (for context, only one qualifying NL player has a BB/K greater than 1.00 – Juan Soto). He’s been worth 0.8 fWAR in just 60 plate appearances, which would put him on pace more than 8 wins above replacement in a full season. There is simply no denying that Travis Jankowski has been extremely valuable to the Phillies in his 60 plate appearances this season.

But can he keep it up?

*Statistics as of 07/19/2021, prior to Tuesday night’s game.

The simple answer is no. Obviously not. Travis Jankowski is not actually an 8-win player. Jankowski isn’t a prospect anymore. He’s thirty years old and this is his seventh major league season. Heading into 2021, he had a career .618 OPS and 76 wRC+. He’s not going to suddenly turn into Mike Trout.

For starters, he currently has a .436 BABIP, which is entirely unsustainable. No one can sustain a BABIP that high over a full season. And while Jankowski has been able to maintain a BABIP somewhat higher than league average over his career (his career BABIP is .323, while league average this season is .291) he doesn’t hit the ball hard enough to maintain a truly high BABIP the way that players like Jorge Alfaro and Aaron Judge can. Therefore, we can expect his batting average to drop significantly moving forward. That’s not a huge problem, however, because Jankowski doesn’t need a .375 batting average to be valuable to the Phillies. His batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage could all drop 100 points and he’d still be the best offensive option in center field.

Miami Marlins v Philadelphia Phillies
To the tune of “Sister Golden Hair” by the band America: “Well, I keep on thinkin’ ‘bout you, Phillies golden hair surprise. Center ain’t the same without you, read it in the box score lines. I been one poor Phillies writer, cause wins are too, too hard to find. But it doesn’t mean you ain’t been on my mind.”
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

According to Statcast, Jankowski’s expected wOBA is .338. That’s not nearly as good as the .423 wOBA he’s putting up right now, but it’s still well above average, especially for a center fielder. If Jankowski can put up a .338 wOBA going forward, he should absolutely get to steal the starting center field job from Odúbel Herrera, who currently has a .296 wOBA and a .267 xwOBA (which ranks in the bottom 2% of the league).

It’s more complicated than that, however. Batting average on balls in play isn’t the only area in which we can expect Travis Jankowski to regress. His BB/K ratio is also likely to regress towards his career norm over the coming weeks. We don’t often talk about K% and BB% when we talk about a player getting lucky, because those statistics stabilize quite quickly and are some of the clearest markers of a player’s true talent level. The thing is, Jankowski only has 60 plate appearances this year, which is an extremely small sample size, especially for BB%. With just a few high-strikeout, no-walk games, his BB/K could look completely different (Update: Jankowski went 0 for 2 with 2 Ks last night, dropping his BB/K down to .90. Case in point.) Even if you just remove Jankowski’s one intentional walk, his walk rate goes from 15% down to 13.5%. That alone is the difference between an elite walk rate and simply a great one.

For evidence that Travis Jankowski will not maintain his low strikeout rate, we can look at his plate discipline percentages from FanGraphs. One number in particular stands out from his career averages: his contact rate on pitches swung at outside the strike zone. Jankowski is making contact on 86.4% of pitches he swings at outside the zone, which is very high. His career average is 62%, as is the league average this season, so it’s highly improbable that he will maintain his current rate. If/when his O-Contact% goes down, that will lead to a more whiffs and therefore more strikeouts.

Travis Jankowski’s plate discipline statistics from FanGraphs.
via FanGraphs

Perhaps Jankowski really has improved his plate discipline, but he’ll need to prove that over a longer period of time. And even if he has improved his plate discipline somewhat, he has not suddenly developed the best plate discipline in baseball. Unfortunately, when Jankowski’s BB/K regresses and he starts walking less and striking out more, his xwOBA will start to drop. Therefore, his current .338 xwOBA probably isn’t reflective of his true talent level, and we should not expect him to hit that well over the rest of the season.

Still, if Travis Jankowski can just hit like an average center fielder (.712 OPS, .311 wOBA) while playing decent defense, I would consider his 2021 season a huge success, and he will have earned the right to continue starting in center field, at least until Dave Dombrowski trades for a better option. Center field is the most logical offensive position for the Phillies to upgrade, but until (or unless) Dombrowski adds Starling Marte/Kris Bryant/Joey Gallo/etc., Travis Jankowski is the man for the job.

No matter what happens going forward, there’s one thing we can surely all agree upon – Travis Jankowski has more than redeemed himself for his horrendous base running gaffe earlier this season. If Jankowski had been sent down to the minors shortly thereafter, or if the BABIP gods had been less kind to him in the following weeks, he might have gone down as one of the more hated role-players in recent Phillies history. Instead, he’s become a local hero, and I think that’s pretty beautiful.

I owe Travis Jankowski an apology and a retraction. “Pulling a Jankowski” has officially been removed from the Phillies dictionary. And who knows, perhaps by the end of the season “pulling a Jankowski” will mean something completely different, like “hitting a walk-off, World Series-winning home run.” A man can dream.