What If?: An Optimistic Take on Travis Hafner


In early April 2011 the Cleveland Indians introduced a new marketing campaign that spoke directly to their public goal of “creating memories, connecting generations, and celebrating families.” The most popular visible result from the campaign was the simple statement that became the slogan of last season: “What if?”

The 2011 Indians got off to a quick 18-8 start in April and in doing so began to recapture the imaginations of an apathetic fan base. They won 30 of their first 45 games and spent more than half the season in first place; they were on top in the AL Central as late as July 20th. “What if” it was to be a magical season did not seem like a rhetorical question.

One of the driving forces behind the Tribe’s early 2011 surge was designated hitter Travis Hafner. In 94 games he hit .280/.361/.449 (.811 OPS) with 13 home runs and 57 RBI—a performance that was nearly identical to what his did in 2010, when he hit .278/.374/.449 (.824 OPS) with 13 homers and 50 RBI in 108 games.

But the fans’ opinions of Travis Hafner were much higher in 2011 than in 2010, which is best explained by looking at the all-important memory-making attribute: clutch. In 2010 he posted a rather dismal .202/.353/.337 line (.609 OPS) with runners in scoring position, hitting just three homers and racking up 36 RBI in 133 opportunities. But it was a different story in 2011. Hafner delivered one of the best clutch performances in the major leagues last year, finishing behind only Mike Napoli (1.230), Miguel Cabrera (1.191), and Joey Votto (1.182) with a RISP OPS  of 1.152 (.383/.485/.667 triple-slash) with six homers and 46 RBI in just 99 plate appearances.

Although it’s early in the 2012 season and there isn’t a significant body of statistics to make positive or negative judgments about any player, it’s not too soon for someone to make an impression. And so far in the 2012 season Travis Hafner is once again swatting the ball around and out of the ballpark. Watching the ball fly off Hafner’s bat conjures up memories of the old Pronk and makes me wonder: “What if…”

What if Travis Hafner can stay healthy?

Travis Hafner’s injury woes began when he experienced shoulder soreness in spring training of 2008. Over the next three seasons he missed 143 games due to shoulder problems. In 2011 he finally made it through the season without missing any time due to shoulder fatigue or soreness, but he still hit the disabled list twice (oblique injury and strained foot) which caused him to miss 43 games.

Hafner has shown that he is still a very good hitter. Even without the tremendous power with which he used to assail opposing pitchers he has posted an OPS above .800 in each of the last three season. Assuming the should injury is truly in the rear view mirror, what if Travis Hafner can stay healthy and avoid the disabled list for an entire season?

What if the power returns?

On April 11th Hafner hit a 418-foot home run off White Sox lefty John Danks that landed in the old Pronkville section. On April 15th he hit a mammoth 481-foot homer in Kansas City off Royals right hander Luis Mendoza which landed in a right field restaurant. According to ESPN’s Home Run Tracker, only five players have hit longer home runs than Travis Hafner’s 481 foot blast in the last four years: Adam Dunn (504 feet in 2008), Wladimir Balentin (495 feet in 2009), Josh Hamilton (495 feet in 2010), Prince Fielder (486 feet in 2011) and Juan Francisco (482 feet in 2011).

It is extremely unlikely that Travis Hafner will go all Lance Berkman and truly rediscover his home run stroke, but it is not out of the realm of possibility.

What if Travis Hafner can hit left-handed pitchers again?

At one time in his career Travis Hafner was able to hit left handed pitching. As the years have gone on Hafner has struck out more, walked less, and lost the ability to generate extra-base hits against southpaws. In his prime he routinely OPSed over .800 versus same-handed pitchers (including an insane 1.100 OPS in 2006), but he’s seemingly lost that ability. His OPSes against lefties from 2008 to 2011: .602, .696, .706, and .638.

Hafner’s strikeout/walk ratio against southpaws has taken a dramatic turn for the worse. From 2005-07 Hafner had a 1.47 K/BB ratio against left-handers. That mark more than doubled to 3.41 from 2008-11, and his power has numbers have declined as well. Reversing that trend would be a big boon to a team with a lefty-heavy lineup.

What If?

What type of numbers could Travis Hafner put up in 2012 if he were to stay healthy, rediscover his power stroke, and is able to be productive against left-handed pitching? Whenever a team makes a surprise run at a division title or wild card there are always a few good stories and at least one big surprise player. In 2012, I ask: What if that man is Travis Hafner?

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