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The plummeting Rob-Ford’s-popularity-like line on the graph above doesn’t really do justice to Eric Thames. He is certainly not playing himself out of a job in the Jays outfield at the moment, but such wonky lines are only natural the world of completely unscientific graph-making. Especially when Thames’ competition, Travis Snider, is sizzling, pretty much killing it against left-handers this spring, and needing to be moved up on our little chart.
Now, Snider’s troubles at the big league level have never been defined entirely by his inability to hit lefties. True, his .574 career OPS in the meagre 171 plate appearances he’s been deigned to take against them (thanks, Cito!) has been pretty awful. But he’s had trouble hitting just about everyone, and trouble adjusting back, after teams found ways to neutralize him after early-stint success just about every time he’s been called up to the Jays.
He’s still a long way from having won the race for the Opening Day spot in left field, but hitting a hard, off-the-wall, two-run double off genuine Major League lefty Francisco Liriano of the Twins– which Snider did today, following his three straight games with a home run at the end of last week, including two against left-handers, and a 1-for-2 day with a walk and an off-the-wall RBI single (that only was such because Rasmus was on first, waiting to tag) in between– is a pretty good start.
His stats are, of course, less consequential than the fact that he’s been hitting the ball hard. The two walks may not jump out at you, and he may be striking out a lot– three more today, to make it seven in his first eight spring games– but that’s kind of just the way he is, and if you’re swinging well enough to have gone into today’s game with a 1.223 OPS, something is obviously going right.
That said, we all remember Jason Lane and Gabe Gross and the like, so we need to keep this in perspective. But their stories weren’t quite the same– they weren’t guys who needed to come out and hit the way Snider has, and they weren’t guys who ever had a real shot to steal a starting position from someone. Add in the fact that Snider definitely has the defensive edge, and– if there really is a genuine competition between he and Thames, and the Jays aren’t just paying him lip service– I can’t come to any conclusion but that he’s “taken the lead.”
The Jays, of course, almost certainly don’t view this like a horse race. They’re probably more inclined to wait until closer to the end of camp, and evaluate the totality of the performance from Thames and Snider, both in Dunedin and last year– which, honestly, is the prudent way to go about it.
So… for now, we wait. But in the meantime, we get giddy over the stuff we’re hearing about Snider, and the possibility that he may finally be on the verge of tapping into the massive potential he showed when he rocketed through the minors past all but only the most elite of his age-level peers.
“Snider said that he has changed his approach against southpaws, but he wouldn’t tell us how just in case there were prying eyes and ears about reading these things,” Mike Wilner wrote on his blog for the Fan 590 after Saturday’s game. “He was equally happy, by the way, about drawing his first walk of the spring, because he took a strike in the plate appearance while he was ahead in the count. A problem in the past has been that Snider would swing at a strike, rather than his strike, if he was ahead in the count, and that would get him into trouble.”
“I know it’s only spring training, but what he’s doing against left-handers is pretty impressive,” said manager John Farrell, according to the Toronto Sun. “He’s picking out the right pitch and putting good swings on it.”
“What has impressed Alex Anthopoulos (who is, by the way, determined not to give in to the seduction of spring training statistics in evaluating performance) is that Snider has divorced himself somewhat from the competition for the starting job in left field against Eric Thames,” Ken Fidlin adds in the piece.
“A lot of guys talk about not letting things they can’t control get to them, but most aren’t being honest,” said the GM. “In Travis’ case, I believe that’s exactly what he’s doing: Concentrating on what will make him more successful.”
Snider is, “he says, ‘hunting’ in one particular zone,” according to Jeff Blair in Sunday’s Globe and Mail, “while trying to see as many off-speed pitches as possible. ‘You see that with lefties against lefties,’ Farrell said. ‘Go get the first-pitch fastball at some point. It’s a sign of a maturing hitter.’ ”
He is also “focusing on quieting his hands, seeing the ball deeper into the strike zone and ‘not pulling off’ breaking pitches,” says Kevin Gray at Gray Matter, reporting on a 10-minute chat with the player.
“In the past, I’ve had a lot move movement,” Snider told Gray. “I’ve started simplifying things with my hands and my ‘gather’ or ‘load.’ There are different ways to describe it, but it’s all about making sure I’m on time to recognize the pitch, make the proper adjustment if necessary and hit the baseball.”
“I started off mechanically great and fell off and got into some bad habits,” Snider says of the troubles that started for him in 2009. “Ever since then, it’s been a matter of trying to figure out what’s going to work for the long term instead of trying to find a Band-Aid to fix it. The biggest difference, I’d say, is where I start my hands and simplifying the movement and not having so much room to travel with my hands and getting into slot … I’m working on waiting back on off-speed (pitches) without completely pulling off the baseball.”
And let’s not discount the fact that Snider was hampered by wrist troubles both in July of 2010 and September of 2011, according to his Baseball Prospectus page, and perhaps the entire time in between– he went from 23 home runs in 125 games in 2009, to 19 in 107 in 2010, to just seven in 110 last year.
“When you have a bad wrist, you can swing but it’s not going to be the same. You’re not going to have the same power, you’re not going to have the same timing,” says teammate Edwin Encarnacion, no stranger to wrist troubles, according to Larry Millson of the Canadian Press. “Nothing is going to be the same.”
All those words sound just about exactly fucking right, to me. Am I crazy for actually being hopeful that this really is Snider’s time? At this point, yes. But, fuck it if I’m not.