The Texas Rangers selected Travis Hafner of Cowley County Community College (Arkansas City, Kansas) as a draft-and-follow in the 31st round of the June 1996 draft, and got his signature on a contract just before the 1997 deadline. Now 25 years old, the 6'3", 240-pound Hafner has developed into one of the most feared hitters in the minor leagues. As of this writing, he is hitting .339/.460/.541 with the Oklahoma RedHawks and leads the Pacific Coast League in on-base percentage and major-league EqA (.302). He took time to speak with us before a recent game against the Tacoma Rainiers.
Baseball Prospectus: Since signing with the Rangers in 1997, you've progressed steadily, generally moving up one level each year. What are the main adjustments you've had to make as you've climbed the ladder?
Travis Hafner: Probably continuing to work on my defense. Hitting-wise, it would be recognizing pitches and staying back on off-speed stuff. In '98 and '99, I really struggled with the change-up. In 2000, I made big adjustments on letting the ball come to me instead of going out to get the ball. Sitting back on pitches helps you recognize them a lot better. Learning to hit all of the pitches is probably the biggest thing.
BP: You're having a very good year with Oklahoma, facing quite a few pitchers who have spent time in the majors. What's the biggest difference you've noticed between here and Double-A?
TH: All the pitchers seem to be that much more polished. If they want to throw a change-up to the corner, they can probably do it, and they can locate their fastball. Just throwing all their pitches for strikes is probably the big thing, as well as having a pretty good idea how to pitch. Triple-A has a lot more experienced guys, guys who have been up and down. It's just better competition.
BP: Last year, you broke a hamate bone in your wrist and had two surgeries, one before the season to remove the bone and one after the season to clean out scar tissue. I understand that it bothered you all year, even though you played through it. Is it safe to say that's all behind you now?
TH: I'd say it's pretty close to 100%. I still take preventative measures to take care of it and I'll have all of this offseason to rest it, but it feels really good.
BP: The thing that jumped out when I looked at your numbers in the minors is that your strikeouts really dropped between the 1999 and 2000 seasons. You were striking out every three or four at bats, and then you cut that rate almost in half. Were there some specific changes you made to cause that improvement?
TH: Some people like to make a big deal about it, like I've got a lot better approach or something, but the biggest thing is that in Savannah there's a white batter's eye. Left-handed batters look into that batter's eye, and I would drop hat tricks in half of my games there. You just hope you get a knock and go 1-for-4 with a hat trick.
Probably some of it does have to do with having a better approach at the plate. I was a pretty free swinger, but I'm a lot more patient now about waiting for my pitch. Maybe a ball comes in that's a strike on the corner and you could put it in play, but instead you just take it and hope you can get a better pitch later in the at bat.
BP: Along with cutting down the strikeouts, the number of walks you draw has gone up so that the two are almost equal, which is unusual for a power hitter. Have you always had a good eye at the plate or is that something you've worked hard at?
TH: I didn't grow up with that good of an eye. I was always hacking if I got something close. But the more you play in professional baseball, you learn if you're selective and walk more that you'll actually get better pitches on a consistent basis because pitchers know that they have to throw you strikes to get you out.
Like with Barry Bonds, pitchers know that they have to throw him a strike because he's going to take his walks. You can learn a lot by watching Bonds hit.
BP: Do you consider yourself a home-run hitter or a line-drive hitter who sometimes hits the ball out of the park?
TH: I'd like to consider myself a home-run hitter, but this year hasn't gone too well in that department. I'm not sure why that is, but it's just one of those things where they go in stretches and I could get hot and hit four out in five games. [Ed. note: Hafner blasted three home runs in the four games after this interview.]
BP: Switching to the defensive side of the ball, I see you played some third base a few years ago. Were you drafted as a third baseman?
TH: Maybe the scout in my area never watched me play and just thought I played third. [laughing] In high school, I was a slick-fielding shortstop. My first year of junior college, I played third for about a week and then I was the DH. Then, in my sophomore year, I was at first base and right field. I played some third in '98, '99 and 2000 because that's what we needed at the time, but I primarily played first base.
BP: How's your defense at first base? Is it good enough to get by and play there in the majors?
TH: You don't ever want to just "get by." You want to be a quality first baseman. That's something I strive for on a daily basis–to always improve. If you do get up there, you want to be a solid defensive player.
BP: You've been splitting time at first base with Jason Hart, and when you play first, he plays in the outfield. Has the organization thought about trying you in the outfield?
TH: Yeah, they have plans for me to be their center fielder of the future. [laughing] I think the only way I'll sniff the field is at first base.
BP: You're DHing about half the time this year. Are you comfortable with that, especially since in many minor-league parks there's no place for you to stay loose between at bats?
TH: As long as I get to hit, I'm pretty comfortable doing either of them, but it's definitely better to DH in Oklahoma City, where you've got the indoor cages and can go hit off the tee between at bats. In places like this [Cheney Stadium] that don't have cages, it's nice to play the field so you can stay loose.
BP: When were you added to the Rangers' 40-man roster? How many option years do you have left?
TH: I was put on after the 2000 season, although I was eligible after '99. So this is my second option year.
BP: It's no secret that the Rangers have a logjam of first base/designated hitter types, both at the major-league level and in the minors. Do you ever look at that and wonder exactly how you fit in their plans?
TH: In 1998, Shawn Gallagher was a level ahead of me and he was the MVP of the Florida State League and we drafted Carlos Pena that same year. So, I was kind of watching those guys and the next thing you know, I looked down and I was hitting .230 with like 200 punchouts in 250 at bats. I've learned to not care what's going on around me. I just go out and play and don't think about anything. I'm pretty carefree and think that's probably the best way to do it.
BP: Have the Rangers told you anything about what they have in mind for you or are they following Earl Weaver's Second Law, "If you don't make any promises to your players, you won't have to break them"?
TH: I really haven't heard anything. Rovers will come in and they'll talk about some stuff, but nothing's for sure. You just go out and play and hope you do well and get your chance sometime.
BP: There haven't been too many big leaguers born in North Dakota.
TH: [laughing] Yeah, it's the baseball hotbed of the United States.
BP: Are you going to keep going back there in the offseason after you make it to the majors or are you going to go Hollywood?
TH: I kind of like it back there. It's real peaceful, and I have a lot of friends and my family is there. It would definitely be nice to go to someplace warmer, though.
I got into deer hunting this last off-season, so that will give me something to do. The deer are pretty safe when they see me coming–I just give them a good workout. If they're standing around, I'll shoot at them and then they'll start running. [laughing] I could be a personal trainer for deer.
Jeff Bower is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.
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