Second Thoughts: The “Pronk's Bomber” Illusion
Don't buy into the new-and-improved Travis Hafner
Clearly, even Mother Nature had seen just about all she could stomach of the Yankees’ geriatric merry-go-round this week, washing out the last two nights of what was easily the most disappointing home opening series at Progressive Field since the time everybody just said “screw it” and played at Miller Park instead.
It’s now officially been a full five years since the Indians last treated their fans to a series win to start the home schedule. As a silver lining, though, odds are good we’ll have us a nice Yankee doubleheader in much more favorable conditions some time later this summer. And better still, the likelihood of Brett Myers appearing in either of those games is looking slim at best.
And since we’re on the subject of seemingly hopeless reclamation projects, it seems a fitting time to revisit our old friend Travis Hafner—perhaps the unlikeliest Yankee clean-up hitter since Shane Spencer.
After Pronk smashed his way to vengeance with a homer and four RBI off Ubaldo Jimenez and Co. in Monday’s 11-6 warm-up rout, he was quickly dubbed “The Pronk’s Bomber” by the ever-clever New York media. In a subsequent feel-good story in New Jersey’s Star-Ledger newspaper, writer Andy McCullough pointed to Hafner’s work with Yankee hitting coach Kevin Long and the pair’s emphasis on simplicity in re-crafting the 35 year-old’s approach at the plate. Basically, more than 10 years after he’d first earned the nickname, Travis had become “part project” again. I’m not sure if he’s still “part donkey,” as well. But if we assume that’s more of an irreversible genetic sort of thing, then probably so.
Anyway, no one could blame Yankee fans for jumping to conclusions about Hafner after a week of promising results. Six years removed from his last quality Major League season, Pronk is out of the gates hitting .333 with 2 HR, 6 RBI, and a 2005-vintage OPS of .975. Sure it’s only 31 at-bats. But again, New York has made a legit habit of turning cow patties into peach cobblers in recent years. Just in the last two seasons, Eric Chavez, Andruw Jones, and Raul Ibanez all managed to climb out of their caskets and provide some pop as semi-regular contributors in the Bronx. So why not Kevin Youkilis, Vernon Wells, and our old pal Pronk?
Well, with all due respect to Travis—a real class act by all accounts—it’s actually pretty easy to put a dent in the growing enthusiasm surrounding his rebirth as the Pronk's Bomber. As Tribe fans have long since learned, Mr. Hafner tends to make a pretty dramatic entrance almost every April, often convincing the gullible among us that the once feared slugger of yesteryear may yet appear once more. It’s an illusion, though. An illusion, I tell you! For proof, look no further than the numbers Hafner has put up in the first eight games of the past six seasons, starting with 2008—the year he fell off the proverbial cliff from stardom to burnout.
Pronk’s Stats in First 8 Games of Season
2008: .267, 2 HR, 5 RBI, .905 OPS
2009: .258, 3 HR, 7 RBI, 1.040 OPS
2010: .241, 1 HR, 3 RBI, .688 OPS
2011: .355, 2 HR, 6 RBI, .992 OPS
2012: .281, 2 HR, 6 RBI, .878 OPS
2013: .333, 2 HR, 6 RBI, .975 OPS
Notice anything? Outside of a slightly slow start to the 2010 campaign, Pronk has come out mashing in eerily similar fashion every year, despite never finishing any of those seasons with more than 16 homeruns or 57 RBIs. It’s particularly amusing to note how his current season is almost a carbon copy of the previous two—save for the exaggerated New York media coverage.
Of course, it’s still possible that a slimmer, healthier Hafner really has finally figured out some of his issues at the dish. And perhaps a year with that short right field porch will get him back to the 20 homer plateau he hasn’t sniffed in ages. It’s also possible that I’m only questioning the guy because there is nothing else worth talking about after back-to-back rainouts.
Either way, please don’t call your local radio show complaining that the Tribe “gave up” on The Pronk just before he got his groove back. It’s April 12, and we’ve got plenty of other things to be irrationally freaked out about.
1. Joe Girardi isn't trying to win a pennant in April. Regardless of slash line Hafner will be afforded days off to rest his body...even if he feels fine Girardi is smart enough to know that rest is best.
2. Joe Girardi isn't worried about his job and doesn't feel the pressure of having a sub-par replacement in the lineup when he gives the hot hitting Hafner a day off. He wills simply use "rest is best" w/o external pressure.
3. Joe Girardi will not have any external pressure to keep his high dollar DH in the lineup. Hafner isn't the top paid Yankee and will not be forced to live up to a contract.
4. Travis Hafner has to be honest with his manager and training staff. When an area begins to feel sore he needs to communicate this. He can not let problems linger and affect his performance on the field before hitting the disabled list.
5. Joe Girardi will protect Hafner against many of the LH pitchers that could give him trouble. This plays in to the rest is best theory.
I loved the Indians off-season but moving off of Travis Hafner is one part I did not like. Guy is a great hitter, still has some power, and was more than anything was mismanaged for a slew of reasons noted above (both his fault, manager, and management in my opinion). I'm expecting a very solid season out of Hafner in the Bronx.
Against LHP he was .273 in 2010, .233 in 2011 and a dismal .197 in 2012 showing a yearly decline.
The key, IMO, will be whether Hafner can handle strikes early in the count and avoid being fed offspeed pitches out of the zone in clutch situations. Of course the health issues will play into that a lot but healthy or not you still have to deliver when plate appearances matter most so time, and the Yankees' won-lost record, will soon tell.