Top 50 Prospects #8 - Travis Ishikawa

Travis Ishikawa is one of the most hotly debated prospects, and definitely has some of the best upside in the system. He had a breakout year that excited a lot of people with 22 home runs, but hidden in the numbers is a disturbing trend that hints at rough days ahead for the talented first baseman.

Date of Birth: 09/24/1983 Position: 1B Height: 6'3" Weight: 200 Bats: L Throws: L
Acquired: Drafted in the 21st Round (#637 Overall) of the 2002 Draft
2005 Stats
San Jose - High A .282 .387 .532 .920 432 87 122 28 7 22 79 70 129 1 4

It’s been said about the Giants system of late that, behind Matt Cain, the system has a high number of talented prospects that each have their own little drawbacks that keep them from being top shelf guys.  No prospect exemplifies that more than Travis Ishikawa.

To look at Ishikawa is to see the prototypical look for a baseball player.  He’s a well built 6’3 and 200 lbs.  He repeats his swing well, and it’s a smooth swing.  He fields his position with grace and relative ease and moves well for a first baseman.  That may be a lot of why he’s captured so much attention in the system.

When Ishikawa graduated high school in 2002, he was considered a first round talent but unsignable because of his commitment to Oregon State.  But the Giants made him a 21st round pick, and then lured him away from college with a then-record bonus for a non-first round pick.  (See?  General Manager Brian Sabean isn’t allergic to bonuses).  Despite a solid, if short, start to his pro career in 2002, the next few seasons were filled with frustrations, as Ishikawa played inconsistently and advanced slowly.

In 2005, his fourth year in the bigs, he finally had a breakout year at the age of 22, at least for him.  He went from inconsistent to streaky, exemplified by a June where he hit .365 and followed it with a July hitting .207.  The good news is that the multi-talented Ishikawa finally had his best tool emerge, and that was his power.  His 22 home runs led the California League Champions and was 3rd highest in the system.  And he continued to take a very high level of walks, and played excellent defense.

The problem was that Ishikawa had a habit of disappearing for stretches at a time, and never hit consistently enough to become a permanent part of the middle of the order despite his power.  A big part of that was a disturbing strikeout number, 2nd highest on the team behind Nate Schierholtz (and Ishikawa had more, if you include the playoffs).

Usually, the combination of high walks, good defense and excellent power would outweigh the strikeout totals, but a deeper look at the numbers reveals a very troubling issue with Ishikawa.  103 of his 129 strikeouts came swinging, a shocking 83.7%.  What that means is that, despite a strong ability to recognize which pitches are strikes and which are balls, Ishikawa has major issues just making contact with the strikes he does swing at.  That is something that could spell some major issues as he moves up through the ranks and faces even better pitching.

This, along with a lack of consistent production, is what is most bothersome about an otherwise highly-regarded prospect by many.  Ishikawa is a regular on prospect lists because of his fantastic upside, and a true left handed power stroke that could get stronger with age.  But a lot of people ignore the strikeouts because he takes so many walks.  But pitch recognition only goes so far, and when a player continues to strike out so often even with those walks, and especially when the player is counted on for RBIs (which walks rarely result in), those strikeouts will eventually catch up with him.

Ishikawa’s been brought along at a leisurely pace, partially because he came into the system so young, and partially because even with his slow development, the Giants had no other first base prospects pushing him, nor a great need in the majors with J.T. Snow.  Well, in 2006, Ishikawa required protection on the 40 Man roster from the Rule 5 draft, J.T. Snow is gone, and the first base situation may become much more crowded indirectly.  The Giants may have as many as 11 outfielders deserving of playing time ready to go in the Top 3 levels of the system, and that is forcing the team to get creative.  It’s already been long rumored that the Giants may move Eddy Martinez-Esteve to first to help protect his surgically repaired shoulder, and this offseason the Giants had both John Bowker and Brian Horwitz play at first base in the instructional league.  Ishikawa may soon find that there could be other hitters who have produced more consistently competing with him for playing time at first.

What this means is that in 2006, for the first time Ishikawa may be faced with pressure to earn his spot on the teams he’s on.  And he faces the toughest test yet, due to arrive in the Eastern League for 2006.  The Eastern League has chewed up hitters who have had much better all-around years in San Jose than Ishikawa, like Dan Ortmeier and Fred Lewis in the past two years.  If Ishikawa is ever going to turn things on for an entire season and do what he can, this year would be ideal, or else Ishikawa could get lost in the shuffle.

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