(Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire)
In 2015, out of 311 position players, only seven were worse than Matt Joyce. Joyce managed to produce -1.2 WAR in only 284 plate appearances. He batted .174, struck out more than 23% of the time, and hit a whopping five home runs. How in the world could I be referencing Joey Votto and Joyce in the same article? Because recently he has looked quite similarly to one of the best hitters of the last decade. In one facet of the game, at least.
Since that terrible season, Joyce produced a solid 4.5 WAR over the last two seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Oakland A’s, respectively. Joyce does not have exceptional power hitting abilities or bat-to-ball skills. However, he has altered his approach in recent years to make himself a useful player. I will point you to this plot of strike zone swing rate and chase rate for hitters since 2016, with Joyce in black and Votto in red:
Votto is recognized as the most patient hitter in the game. In terms of swing discipline, no player is more similar to him than Joyce over the past three seasons. They both have great discipline metrics, swinging at strikes at a roughly average rate while ranking near the top of the league at avoiding swings at balls. Looking at Z-Swing% – O-Swing%, we can get a good idea on the most disciplined hitters. Here is the top ten hitters since 2016 in Z-Swing% – O-Swing%:
Votto ranks second in the league and Joyce ranks seventh. Besides Jed Lowrie, though, everyone separating Votto and Joyce is a pretty significant free-swinger and their chase rates do not come close to comparing to Joyce’s. When we talk about plate discipline in MLB, we talk about Votto. And Joyce is the only person that even slightly resembles him. Looking at just this season, Votto is first in the league in Z-Swing% – O-Swing%. Joyce is third. Sandwiched between them is Khris Davis, who’s overall patience does not resemble either hitter (swing rate is 8% higher than both Votto and Joyce).
Now, we do have to talk about the platoon advantage that Joyce has. Joyce has been one of the most disciplined hitters of late, but he hardly plays against lefties due to some disgusting platoon splits. He almost exclusively hits against righties, which props up his metrics. If Joyce were an every day player, this article probably would not exist. However, we are still looking at a guy who has the sixth highest walk rate in the league since 2016. Of players who recorded a minimum of 250 plate appearances in 2016, Joyce had the highest walk rate in the league by nearly 3% with a 20.1% rate. This year, obviously with our small sample size asterisk, he is walking more than he is striking out. When a right-handed pitcher is on the mound, Joyce is leading off for the A’s and spearheading the second best offense in the league to date.
After a miserable 2015 seasons, Joyce’s improved discipline now has him as an important player on a good offense. I’m not saying Joyce is Joey Votto, or that he ever has been or ever will be. He does not hit the ball with the authority that Votto does. The overall results for Joyce are nothing compared to Votto. But with respect to discipline at the plate, no one has looked more like Votto than Joyce over the past few years. He likely won’t ever find himself as an everyday player again, but Joyce’s exceptional batting eye has turned him into a player that is trouble for right-handed pitchers.