Without looking, take a guess at who leads the majors in stolen bases per plate appearance. Most of you probably chose Billy Hamilton, and while you aren’t far from being right, you are still wrong. While Hamilton’s pace of swiping a bag in 11.1% of his PA is mighty impressive, someone else is at an even more ridiculous pace of 11.6%. (Author’s note: As pointed out in the comments section by user “Regression is Mean,” Hamilton stole four bases yesterday to bump his rate up to 12.1%.)
Believe it or not, this mystery player is not even owned in 10% of Yahoo or ESPN leagues, as he currently sits at 8% and 9.5% ownership on those sites, respectively. (CBS owners are catching on, as he’s 20% owned on that site.) Who the heck is this player, and why isn’t he on your roster?
This player is…drumroll, please…Travis Jankowski of the San Diego Padres. The 25-year-old is San Diego’s everyday leadoff hitter, and while maybe the Padres aren’t the most exciting offense, almost anyone who leads off every single day is deserving of some fantasy love. Especially when that player is stealing bases at a higher rate than anyone in baseball.
While Jankowski is severely under-owned, there are some logical reasons why fantasy owners are overlooking him. He took over the Padres’ everyday center field job when Jon Jay went down with a fractured forearm in late June. Before that, he was used sparingly — with just 96 PA in the first three months of the season — so his full-season stats are still unimpressive on the surface.
Additionally, Jankowski isn’t exactly a great hitter. He has zero power whatsoever, with three homers in his 1,444 minor-league PA, and his .260 batting average is propped up by a .376 batting average on balls in play. Combine that high BABIP with a strikeout rate in excess of 25%, and I understand why you’d be hesitant to pick him up.
On the other hand, we’re talking about the No. 14 outfielder in standard leagues over the last 30 days. In that span, he hit .273, stole 11 bases and scored 16 runs. Over the last seven days — an admittedly miniscule sample — Jankowski rates as the top outfield option in fantasy, going 12-for-23 at the plate, with seven steals and 11 runs.
If you’re in an OBP league, stop reading right now and go pick him up. Jankowski walked 13 times in the last month, and his walk rate is all the way up to 14.5%, boosting his OBP to a robust .376. Even in standard leagues, deploying him properly generates major value for your lineup.
The thing about Jankowski is that he absolutely cannot hit lefties whatsoever, with a season slash of .103/.186/.128. That .314 on-base plus slugging is roughly equivalent to an average pitcher’s OPS. Seeing as they have nothing to lose — aside from dozens of meaningless games — the Padres now typically keep Jankowski in the lineup against left-handers. Smart move if you’re a rebuilding franchise; not so much when you’re a fantasy owner.
Against righties, he’s slashing .306/.426/.403. Sure, some of those plate appearances against lefties come against relievers, but if you bench Jankowski against southpaw starters, you’re getting something relatively close to the line above.
For those of you concerned about his .376 BABIP, I’ll point out that this is pretty much in line with what he did in his two full minor-league seasons. Ignoring his injury-shortened 2014, Jankowski put up a .350 BABIP in High-A in 2013 (556 PA), and a .382 BABIP between Double-A and Triple-A last year (434 PA).
His speed is legit, as he swiped a ridiculous 71 bases back in that 2013 High-A campaign. More than just being a deadly stolen-base threat, Jankowski is one of the best baserunners in general right now. He’s created 3.6 runs on the basepaths, putting him in the top 20 in FanGraphs’ BsR baserunning metric. Only four players in the top 20 have less than 400 PA, with Jankowski’s 207 easily being the least on the list.
If you want to visualize what I’m talking about, take these two plays from last week. First off, check out this play from last Monday, in which Jankowski steals third base.
While Jankowski gets into third with ease, Wil Myers didn’t have the same good fortune, getting a late jump and finding himself caught in a rundown. Jankowski crept slowly down the third-base line until Jonathan Villar glanced over at the 0:06 mark of that video, then immediately took off as soon as Villar threw the ball to Chris Carter. By the time Carter caught the ball and threw it home, Jankowski was already sliding in safely, thus stealing third and home on the same play.
Five days later, Jankowski scored from second on an infield single. In Saturday’s game against the Phillies, Yangervis Solarte hit a grounder into the hole between first and second. Cesar Hernandez tracked it down, but air-mailed the throw. Solarte turned around first base, and Tommy Joseph tagged him out. In doing so, Joseph learned a valuable lesson — never, ever turn your back on Travis Jankowski:
Even in standard leagues, where Jankowski’s walks don’t directly contribute, the havoc he creates on the bases helps generate runs beyond his already-impressive stolen-base numbers. Long story short, this is not a player who should be available in over 90% of leagues, yet that is still the case on both Yahoo and ESPN.
If your fantasy team is in need of a boost in either runs or steals, Jankowski can provide immediate help straight from the waiver wire.
Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.