The Texas Rangers didn’t exactly sneak up on people this season after their lavish spending the previous two winters. Texas dropped more than $560 million before the 2022 lockout, the large chunk of that on two coveted shortstops — Corey Seager and Marcus Semien — then spent another $300 million to rebuild the rotation the following year.
What did fly under the radar, however, was the $1.25 million investment in Travis Jankowski, the former Stony Brook standout who enjoyed a baseball renaissance in these parts during his celebrated cameo in Flushing last season. Jankowski appeared in 43 games for the 101-win Mets, long enough for teammate Eduardo Escobar to have shirseys printed up in his honor, and now he’s become a significant contributor on another team with ambitious October goals.
“It’s awesome,” Jankowski told Newsday. “It’s been a long time coming. I’ve had some bumps and bruises along the way. But honestly, man, it’s just kind of a blessing. I think being here, being with Texas, it feels like home. Playing for [manager Bruce] Bochy is incredible. A lot of managers say they put their players in the best position to succeed. He lives by it.
“So just being able to go out and do what I do: get on base a lot, put the ball in play a lot, not worry about power. Been fitting the mold so far, so hopefully I can keep it going.”
Through Friday, the Rangers were the top-scoring team in the majors, averaging 6.07 runs, nearly a half-run more than the Rays (5.62). Not coincidentally, Jankowski is having the best season of his nine-year career, hitting .298 with a .397 on-base percentage in 44 games (including 27 outfield starts).
After being a first-round pick by the Padres in 2012, Jankowski didn’t get a taste of a winning season until the pandemic-shortened year with the Reds in 2020, and his upward trajectory since then has culminated in this enviable landing spot. While Jankowski obviously didn’t have the market of the marquee names in the Rangers’ clubhouse, each winter involves choices. This turned out to be a smart one, even with Texas coming off a 68-win season a year ago.
“One of my biggest things, as I’m getting older in this game, is I want to win,” said Jankowski, who turned 32 earlier this month. “I’ve done the rebuilding stuff, I’ve had the tough years. I want to win. Obviously they said they’re trying to win, but their actions stood by that as well . . . The proof was in the pudding for me. I was a later signing, so I could see all this unfold, and I was like, ‘All right, they’re true about it.’
“Also, there was a position for me to make out of spring training to play. I didn’t want to be on a Triple-A team. Those were my biggest things. Being on the field for a winning team is where I want to be.”
Jankowski signed with the Rangers on Jan. 27, a month after a starter spending spree netted them Jacob deGrom (five years, $185M), Nathan Eovaldi (two years, $34M) and Andrew Heaney (two years, $25M). Texas also brought back Martin Perez on a $20 million qualifying offer, fortifying a rotation that ranked at the bottom of most categories, including 25th in ERA (4.63) and 26th in WHIP (1.41).
Even with deGrom lost to Tommy John surgery after only six starts (30 1⁄3 innings), the Texas turnaround has been remarkable, with the second-best starter ERA (3.47) in the majors and fourth-best WHIP (1.17). For all of the Rangers’ mashing, it’s the stellar rotation that has allowed them to post baseball’s top run differential at plus-155 through Friday (the Rays were a close second at 153).
“That’s an area that needed to improve,” Bochy said. “We had a good offense set up, and you look at a couple of players that have come into their own, like [Ezequiel] Duran and [Leody] Taveras, have lengthened our lineup. They’ve been a big plus for us. But it starts with starting pitching, and there’s a sense of confidence throughout the club that we can play with anybody. I love the way the team has come together.
“It’s a good group here that believes now. And that’s one of the last things that has to come around after you’ve had some losing seasons. These guys have put those seasons behind them and come out here and played winning baseball.”
The Rangers’ revival brings to mind some of what was happening over in Flushing with Jankowski’s former team a year ago. Jankowski wasn’t there for the Mets’ entire run, but enough to experience the mojo that spurs a roster with the right mix.
Bochy, like Buck Showalter last season, is making his debut as Texas manager. But he also led the Giants to three World Series titles, so he’s got more of a track record when it comes to being at the wheel for a consistent playoff contender.
“I think chemistry is huge,” Jankowski said. “We had great chemistry in New York last year from top to bottom. And I wasn’t in a relevant role, but those guys with the whole jersey thing, everyone cared about each other.
“I’ll say too — and analytical people may not like this — playing for kind of an old-school manager, where guys can go out and just be themselves, hey, this is the lineup, this is your role and it’s really not changing depending who’s on the mound. I think that goes a long way.”
While Showalter’s current fit with the Mets is up for some debate during this disappointing and often ugly first half, the Rangers hiring of Bochy, 68, is sparking similar magic to Showalter’s first year in Flushing. Given that Jankowski has flourished under Bochy, his endorsement isn’t surprising.
“He has that fine line of being able to relate to the players, but he also has the respect of the players, where he’s the man,” Jankowski said. “He’s the head honcho and I think everyone respects that. There’s nothing better than joking around with Boch. He’s funny, he’s great. But when it comes time to play the game, it’s on. He cares about us as individuals. But there’s a line there you can’t really cross with a manager, and he knows that line from managing almost 4,500 games.”
Bochy isn’t the only one who has made Jankowski feel comfortable in Texas. He’s also reunited with his Stony Brook teammate (and West Islip native) Pat Cantwell, a third-round pick by the Rangers in 2012 and the team’s bullpen catcher. Both were on the historic Seawolves team that advanced to the College World Series in 2012.
“That’s probably a little bit of a help, too — someone who knows me,” Jankowski said. “He’s not on the coaching staff, per se, where he’s making decisions. But coming into a new clubhouse and having the relationship with him that I do, it eases the tension a little bit, you know? He gets it. He understands the ups and downs of this game.”
And now, all these years later, the two former Seawolves could be making another unexpected run to a World Series.
MLB eyes on Texas
The Rangers haven’t posted a winning record since 2016, which also marked the franchise’s last trip to the playoffs -- one that abruptly ended in a Division Series sweep by the Blue Jays. Nearly midway through this season, however, MLB fans are noticing everything is looking better in Texas. How the Rangers compare to the rest of MLB after Friday’s games (next closest teams in parenthesis).
Category Stat MLB Rank (next closest team)
Run differential Plus 155 1st (Rays 153)
Runs per game 6.07 1st (Rays 5.62)
Batting average 272 1st (Atlanta .270)
OPS .796 3rd (Atlanta .821, Rays .806)
Rotation ERA 3.47 2nd (Rays 3.23)
Innings per start 5.71 1st (Astros 5.67)
2023 Payroll $223M 9th (Mets $375M)