The Toronto Blue Jays’ 23-year-old outfielder Travis Snider managed to go one-for-four against the Texas Rangers yesterday, extending his hitting streak to five games, but that wasn’t enough to keep him from getting demoted to AAA after the game. Despite the totally meaningful streak, Snider has “hit” .184/.276/.264 (59 wRC+) on the season, although hey, he has stolen 5 bases (look out Tim Raines (51)!). The Blue Jays likely made this move to make room for center fielder Rajai Davis (30), who is coming off of the disabled list today, but Snider wasn’t the only move they could have made, particularly given his age, prospect status, and above all, how early in the season it is. I could just tempt fate and write “sample size sample size sample size,” and that is probably the biggest issue. But is there anything in Snider’s 99 plate appearances so far in 2011 to indicate a problem that requires some time in the minors to work through?
On an organizational level, while there is a non-zero value for wins for even a losing team, the Blue Jays aren’t going to be contending this season (nor were they planning on doing so), although their near future remains bright. So if Snider’s trouble’s are merely a short-term slump that he can work through in the majors, he should stay up. Perhaps the Jays don’t want to risk losing Corey Patterson (31), given that if Davis goes down again, he’s the only thing resembling a real center fielder on the roster. That’s not quite as ridiculous as it sounds — Patterson actually hit decently (98 wRC+) last season and plays an okay center field. On the other hand, the risk of losing a one win player in his thirties shouldn’t weigh too heavily against the development of a promising young player during a season dedicated to rebuilding and development.
Snider was probably brought up too early in 2008 (and even 2009 was a bit of a stretch), but he held his own with the bat in those seasons, given his age. While his walk rate dropped in 2010 (6.6% after 10.5% in 2009), his strikeouts dropped quite a bit (down in 26.5% from 32.4%) and he added a some power. A .255/.304/.463 (105 wRC+) line isn’t exactly what you’re looking for from a defensively-limited corner outfielder, but given his 2010 age (22) and past performance (and leaving aside injuries and getting jerked around with regard to playing time), it held promise.
So what has changed so dramatically in Snider’s 99 plate appearances so far in 2011 that called for a demotion? Snider may have had a bit of bad luck on balls in play — only a .238 so far. However, the batted ball data shows that he was hitting both more ground balls and fly balls so far in 2011 at the expense of line drives. Still, while that might mitigate one kind of random variation that might explain Snider’s slow start, it doesn’t change the fact that it is a small sample size. Power numbers ‘stabilize’ more quickly that balls in play (although neither mean much, if anything, this early), and Snider’s .080 ISO is troubling for a player whose power potential has long been his calling card. Still, it seems unlikely that a player who had a better than 13% home run to fly ball rate his first two go-rounds in the majors and an 18% rate last season suddenly became a pea-shooter.
Batted ball issues are obviously subject to a fair bit of fluctuation relative to other stats. Given that, maybe there is a problem with Snider’s plate approach that has cropped up this season and caused problems. Snider’s strikeouts have been mentioned in relation to his demotion, but in actuality his strikeout rate is almost exactly the same as it was last season (around 26%). That’s poor, but there are plenty of good hitters with similar (or worse) strikeout rates. Moreover, his walk rate had jumped back up to 10.5%. Yes, he’s swinging at about half of the pitches he sees, but that’s par for the course for Snider, and so far, he’s actually improved his contact (78.2% as oppose to 73.5%). There are problems here (Snider is swinging too much), but it isn’t impossible to succeed with plate discipline numbers like that — Jay Bruce‘s walk rate, strikeout rate, swing rate, and contract rates were all about the same in 2010 as Snider’s in 2011. Granted, Bruce is a great fielder and Snider is… not, but a .363 wOBA would be nice.
That’s not all there is to it, naturally. And this is not to say that any of this has any particular statistical significance, good or bad, so far this season, simply that compared to Snider’s previous performance, these “process” stats show that while his batted ball performance hasn’t been great, the numbers indicate his overall approach might be the same or even improved a bit. Perhaps the Blue Jays have seen something in Snider’s swing (beyond simply his results so far) this season that they think needs the sort of work that can only be done in the minors. If so, it is something that isn’t showing up in the numbers, which see Snider as taking basically the same plate approach as in the past and simply having a stretch of bad luck with the outcomes.