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August 14, 2012

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

Bring Me the Head of Travis Snider

by Jason Parks

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The Backstory
Travis Snider was selected with the 14th overall pick in the 2006 draft, considered by many pundits and prognosticators as the best pure bat available in that class. After taking $1.7M to turn pro, Snider didn’t waste any time proving the theory that his bat was indeed special, ripping up the rookie Appalachian league with patience, power, and the ability to hit for average. He was clearly a special talent at the plate, with explosive hands that put command over the bat and allowed for plus bat speed. His physical presence was both a turn-on and a turn-off, as his linebacker physique brought near-elite strength to the table and, with his leveraged swing, allowed for plus-plus power projection to enter the player profile. The knock on the body was a lack of premium athleticism, which some believed would hinder him down the line with adjustments, both in the field and at the plate. Snider is built like former Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas, standing under 6 feet tall and weighing around 240 lbs. I’m not sure why I picked Zach Thomas. I always liked him. Snider’s built like the last guy in the world you would want to wrestle, either for giggles or in a more serious context.

Snider jumped to the full-season Midwest league in 2007, and crushed the ball in an environment where most 19-year-olds aren’t capable of crushing the ball. He was applauded for using an all-fields approach, shortening up the swing to spray to the opposite field, or uncorking a leveraged attack, using his massive pull power to send balls over the right field fence. Scouts loved his swing, suggesting he could hit for both average and power at the highest level, and his overall approach didn’t have many red flags; he did show some swing-and-miss qualities, but given his age and his level, alarms weren’t sounding.

His defensive skill set wasn’t exceptional, but his arm was very strong and he had the necessary athleticism to stay in right field, assuming his focus on conditioning remained determined. His makeup was said to be special, and his work ethic was championed by all those who were able to participate or observe his immediate environment; if you spent any time around Travis Snider, you probably ended up giving his makeup some additional hype. He was that guy. By the end of the season, most national writers had Snider ranked as a top ten prospect in the game, and his ceiling was an All-Star corner with a dual-threat bat capable of both average and power. He might have looked more like a fullback than a baseball player, but his offensive potential made him look like a monster.

2008 was a magical year for Snider, as he rode the minor league train all the way to the top, making three stops in the junior circuit before finally arriving at the major league level at the age of 20. After a short stay in the Florida State League, Snider was bumped to Double-A, where the swing-and-miss aspect of his offensive game was magnified by the level of competition. Observers were still impressed with some of his finer offensive qualities, but his approach was more pull-happy than ever before, and the holes created by this approach lead to some exploitation. In 98 games, Snider whiffed 116 times, but he was also able to take pitchers deep into counts and reach base at a high clip despite not making consistent contact. When he did square the ball, the ball felt the wrath of his power, with 38 extra-base hits, including 17 bombs that were usually of the no-doubt variety. Still, the hitting approach displayed at Double-A forced some to hit pause on his rapid ascension to superstardom, but the Jays clearly had other plans.

After a brief stop in Triple-A, where Snider absolutely raked in a small sample size, he was called to the big stage, a September call-up (08/29) that seemed curious given his level of development and the current state of the team. Regardless, the move looked great, as Snider hit for some average, he showed some pop, he wasn’t brutalized by the strikeout, and he carried himself like a professional; although, the latter was expected given the makeup and maturity displayed thus far in his career. With 24 games of major league experience under his belt, the player of the future was now the player of the present, and Snider was penciled into the lineup going forward.

The rest of the journey is fraught with developmental stagnation, brought upon my injury, performance inconsistency, and developmental inconsistency, as Snider was never given a full season at the major league level to fail and make adjustments. From 2009 to 2011, Snider split time between the majors and the minors, getting demoted when his offensive struggles made him a liability, and returning to the stage after his bat once again proved its worth. At the highest level, Snider’s approach gave big league arms a recipe for his own destruction, as the pull-happy tendencies were still present, and pitchers were able to expand the zone on him with great success. The hit tool was once described as pure and easy, a swing that was short to the ball and explosive through the extension, but now it was receiving only average grades and only causal praise. Snider was struggling to hit for average, often selling out his approach to provide power, the problem being that the power numbers weren’t on par with the expectations of a corner bat. Speaking of…

The Expectations:
Draft placement aside, it became obvious that Snider was a special hitter during his rookie campaign in the Appy league. He was a pure hitter, with the type of hands built for a high average and the type of strength built for substantial in-game power. He had middle-of-the-order potential, a prototypical number three hitter for a championship level squad. His body was anything but prototypical, with almost as much width as actual height, and his defensive skill set wasn’t going to carry him if the bat failed to live up to the hype. But the bat was supposed to live up to the hype, and the prospect pontifications that rattled around the ears in 2008 and 2009 built a profile of a player destined for stardom. I remember seeing Snider in 2008 and thinking that he was a future .300 hitter, the kind that can also bring 25+ home run pop to the table. In other words, I also saw a player destined for stardom.

The Quotes:

“Snider has exceeded expectations thus far, and those expectations were high to begin with. He could move more quickly now that he has been exposed to the AFL and has put the MWL, the toughest hitting environment he’ll encounter, behind him. Ticketed for high Class A Dunedin in 2008, he’ll eventually bat in the middle of Toronto’s order and has a big league ETA of 2010.” –Baseball America (2008 Prospect Handbook)

“Snider is one of the top hitting prospects in baseball. He has a very patient approach, plus power to all fields, and hits lefties and righties with equal effectiveness--projecting for legitimate MVP-level numbers down the road. He's a hard worker with great makeup who has survived personal adversity and appreciates where he is.”Kevin Goldstein (January 2008)

“He's going to be the third hitter in the Jays' lineup, a perennial All-Star, and an occasional MVP candidate.” –Kevin Goldstein (March 2009)

So What Happened?
First of all, Snider’s accelerated trajectory to the majors put him under the brightest spotlight when he was only 20 years old. By the time he was 21, he had already stumbled at the major league level and found himself back in the minors, saddled with the burden of setback at a very young age. Snider’s offensive profile needed adjustment, especially after he transformed from a balanced offensive threat, with a plus-plus hit tool and plus power, to a hitter that fell into the pull-side power trap and opened himself up to exploitation.

You can assign blame on several fronts, and I can’t speak to which one has more validity over the other. Snider’s overall hitability took steps backward during the developmental process just as his in-game power took steps forward. As is often the case with power hitters, a sacrifice is made with the quality of the hit tool, and as the power booms, the contact rates that once existed have a tendency to fall. Power is derived from the hit tool, so it makes sense that if you tweak your swing to hit the long ball (more loft, more leverage, etc.), the ability to make regular contact suffers. But was this a developmental approach that evolved naturally in Snider’s game, or did the Jays encourage more in-game power at the expense of his ability to hit for a high average? Regardless of what happened, Snider wasn’t the same hitter in 2011 that he was in 2007; the once pure hitter that projected to hit over .300 looked more like a Quad-A hitter destined for a yo-yo career.

Snider is still very young, and still has room for developmental progress in his game. Thanks to a few injuries and a few early hooks from the majors, Snider has yet to play a full season at that level. Several scouts and front office personnel I spoke with still believe in his bat, but the aggressive pull-happy approach isn’t the preferred path to redemption. A return to the easy swing, the one that was compact and short to the ball yet full of explosion at the extension point, is how Snider can climb back into the national spotlight; perhaps a return to the player that Snider was constructed to be from the very beginning. Snider was the type of hitter that could rip both lefties and righties alike, owning the bat speed to square quality velocity and the bat control to stay back and use the opposite field. His natural power will play, though, I doubt he will be the plus-plus game power type that many envisioned. I think he can return to hitting for a higher average, mixing in some doubles and some home runs, but becoming more of a contact hitter than he has shown in recent years.

If Snider can stay healthy and get his reps against major league pitching, he’s going to find a way to hit. The makeup is there to overcome failure, and I think his journey so far is indicative of his personal strength and mental fortitude. The hitter we all labeled as a superstar is unlikely to emerge, but then again, that player might not have existed in the first place. Snider’s best bet is to return to the balanced hitter he was at the beginning of this tale, not the one that lost his way while planning his home run trot.

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

Related Content:  Scouting,  Minor League Baseball

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