When the Colorado Rockies signed Ramon Hernandez in 2012, the Cincinnati Reds used the supplemental first round pick they received in exchange to draft high school outfielder Jesse Winker. Winker was a top 50 prospect before both the 2015 and 2016 seasons, while being praised for his strong hit-tool and natural ability to hit to all fields. He has shown these tools at every minor league level and has consistently reached base safely. However, he hasn’t quite broken out yet at the major league level. Although he’s played in the majors the past two seasons, he has struggled to stay healthy. 2019 was the same story. But I’m still high on Winker and hopefully I can convince you to like him too!
When you look at the overall stats, you see a hitter who was good, but not great. Before his season was cut short due to a back injury, he was hitting .269/.357/.473. He had 16 homers, a 113 wRC+, and was roughly 2.8 offensive runs above average. He walked at a rate of 9.9% and had a hard hit rate of 40.7%. Those are good numbers on their own, but they are tainted by a pretty slow start to the season. In his combined stats for March, April, and May, Winker slashed .239/.313/.455 in 195 plate appearances. He was 7% below league average offensively with an unimpressive 93 wRC+. He walked at just an 8.2% clip, while striking out at a 17.4% rate. But when June rolled around Winker improved and went on to end his last three months of the season with some pretty great numbers. In his next 189 plate appearances, Winker hit .302/.402/.494 and produced a much more appealing 134 wRC+. He went from being 0.1 runs above average to 10.3 runs above average on the season. His walk rate improved to 11.6% and his strikeout rate dropped to 13.8%. The interesting part is that Winker had an extremely similar trend in 2018, where he produced an 88 wRC+ in his first 178 PA’s and a 173 wRC+ in his next 156 PA’s. But Jesse is still just 26 and has only accumulated 855 PA’s across 3 seasons at the MLB-level. It would be unfair and lazy to say he’s just a slow-starter, especially towards someone I biasedly love, so let’s try to identify a difference.
First, let’s look at Winker’s quality and direction of contact.
Now remember contact quality rates aren’t based on strictly exit velocity, but they still offer some value. The results are a bit surprising, as we see a drop in his hard hit rate and an increase in his soft hit rate. Additionally, we see he started to pull the ball a bit more, something you wouldn’t expect from a hitter with a strong hit tool to all fields. His splits by Statcast measures support the same idea. In his first three months, Winker had an average exit velocity of 89.6 MPH. In the last three months, his average exit velocity dropped to 88.5 MPH. Generally, harder hit balls are much more favorable towards offensive success, but in Winker’s case he got better with a little softer contact. But aren’t we forgetting an important part of batted balls? Exit velocity is immensely important but gets overruled if it isn’t paired with an adequate launch angle. In Winker’s case, he had an average launch angle of 7.5 degrees in his first 195 PA’s and an average launch angle of 7.2 degrees in his next 189 PA’s. This change in launch angle may have played a role in the consistency of his batted ball types.
Now that’s a positive sign. Winker saw a big jump in his line drive rate and a notable decrease in his fly ball rate. For someone who was only in the 51st-percentile in exit velocity and never praised for raw power, elevating balls higher in the air might not be as rewarding. But remember that this fly ball rate includes infield pop-ups, which can be misleading. Winker had an infield fly ball rate of 7.7% in the first span and an infield fly ball rate of 0.0% in the second span. Subtracting the difference means that his fly ball rate actually increased a slight bit. So it’s possible that his average launch angle is lower because of less pop ups. After his adjustment, we can see more batted balls and hits falling in the category of a lower launch angle.
Winker saw a slight increase in his xBABIP, going from .339 to .348, but an even bigger improvement in his overall xBA, where he jumped from .273 to .293. The small change in average launch angle may just be a correlation without any direct impact on the improved line drive rate, or the improvement might just be the result of a change in approach and pitch selection, but nonetheless the results improved. I’ll choose to believe the improved line drive rate made an impact.
As I stated earlier Winker saw a slight dip in average exit velocity after his first three months. So it comes as no surprise that Winker also saw a decrease in power. Perhaps part of the adjustment was having less of a power approach, but we can look at his barrels and see if this should be of concern. Winker had 142 batted ball events (BBE) in his first three months and barreled eight balls. He had 136 batted ball events in his second three months and barreled six balls. Two fewer barrels shouldn’t cause a huge scare, but it isn’t good. So let’s dive a little deeper to make some positives out of it. Part of what makes a barrel is hitting the ball harder than 95 MPH with an ideal launch angle. The harder you hit the ball, the wider the launch angle range becomes for it to be deemed a barrel. An average launch angle of 7.4 isn’t all that good to begin with, so what if we remove it? If we look at just the number of batted balls that he hit harder than 95 MPH, this is what we get.
|BBE||Balls 95+ MPH||95+/BBE%|
So although Winker might have had fewer barrels and a lower average exit velocity, he also had more hard hit balls. Now of course, to give him a lower average, he must have more soft hit balls in the second three-month span. And of course he does, with 16 batted balls below 75 MPH in the first span and 25 batted balls slower than 75 MPH in the second span. This makes me think that Winker started the season with a power-approach that he wasn’t quite ready for. When he realized it wasn’t translating like he hoped, he made an adjustment to look for more line drives.
Finding The Right Pitch
Winker’s 2019 pitch values weren’t all that bad.
He struggled with sliders, but hit the fastball well and curve decently. But this is at season’s end. How did he perform vs these pitches in his three month splits? Let’s look at his wOBA vs different kinds of pitches.
To be crystal clear, fastballs cover 4-seam, 2-seam, cutters, and sinkers. Offspeed covers splitters and changeups. Breakers covers sliders and curveballs.
We can see pretty clearly, his results in his second three months were A LOT better. In fact, there were 431 hitters in the second half with at least 30 results against fastballs and Jesse Winker ranked 10th in wOBA against the pitch. A significant improvement was made. But there has to be more to it than just hitting a few pitches better.
Plate discipline statistics get a bit tricky when dealing with splits, since Fangraphs’ public split tool doesn’t currently provide plate discipline metrics. But a few searches on Baseball-Savant is all we need to get the data we are looking for. I should note that when looking at the plate discipline statistics for Winker’s full season, there was a little discrepancy between the Baseball-Savant results and Fangraphs’ listed data, but it is probably due to borderline pitches being treated differently (the difference is marginal). So let’s take a look.
Winker swung at fewer pitches in his last three months, but specifically he swung at less pitches outside of the strike zone. A 5.2% drop in swings on pitches outside the zone is always fantastic to see from a hitter who relies on on-base skills. If you’re a visual kind of person, here’s his O-Swing pitch chart before and after.
Winker still had a tendency to chase pitches below the zone, but definitely took more pitches off the corners. The other notable difference is a drop in his swing and miss rate by 2.2%. Again, this might just be because he swung a little less, but either way it’s a good sign. Earlier I noted that Winker saw a 3.4% increase in his walk rate and a 3.6% decrease in his strikeout rate after his first three months. The improved discipline definitely played a role in those improvements.
Winker’s last three months saw two improvements. He was able to cut back on chasing pitches out of the zone, while simultaneously improving his line drive rate. This allowed for an improved batting average as well as an uptick in OBP. These changes could be directly linked with a mental adjustment at the plate, but what if they weren’t? What if it was a physical adjustment that aided the improvements? What if it was something as simple as a change to Winker’s batting stance?
Trying To Figure It Out
Winker’s swing went through a bit of a transformation throughout his 2019 season. Much like his teammate Joey Votto, Winker changed his stance, presumably in an effort to find more comfort in the batter’s box. Like the statistics hint, the biggest difference in his swing came after his first three months. But let’s start with the first three months and see how his swing developed.
Here’s his swing on March 28th. It’s his very first plate appearance of the season and the swing looks smooth. His feet look to be about shoulder-width apart, he has a decent amount of bend in his knees, his back elbow is up high, and he’s got a nice rhythm in his hands. Notice the direction of his barrel in his rhythm and the tilt of the barrel towards the pitcher. He also has a subtle load with a small leg-lift.
When we skip ahead two months to May 15th, we see a swing with a few differences.
In this swing we see a little less bend in the knees, a back elbow that isn’t so high, and a different rhythm in his barrel. This time the barrel never tips towards the pitcher, it simply just moves up and down. The last difference is his load. Now his leg lift has become more of a leg kick and you can see him sink into his legs. Although the GIFs show success, Winker struggled in these months, so maybe he too struggled to be on time consistently. Let’s see the changes he made that gave him consistent success.
Through all of June Winker’s swing was just like his May swing, but amidst July, where he had a 153 wRC+ and .429 OBP, he made another change. From then on, his stance was just about rock-solid consistent through the end of his season. Here’s what it looked like.
This swing is even more different. His stance is much more upright with what looks like a more narrow stance. His bat points straight up with very limited movement and, although the height of his leg lift tended to vary a bit, all of his loads became much quieter and slower. He finished his season with this swing and it ended on a very positive note.
Putting It All Together
Winker changed his swing throughout the year while at the same time improving his hitting skills and production? Is there a correlation or is it just chance? Let’s see what we’ve got.
- Stance became more upright
- Hand movement became quieter and smaller
- Load became slower and quieter
- Line drive rate greatly improved
- More hard hit balls, but also more soft hit balls
- Big improvements against fastballs, changeups, and splitters
- Cut down chasing out of the zone and swinging and missing
The tough part is that we can analyze improvements and mechanical changes all we want, but we won’t truly know the impact without knowing Winker’s approach. But we can use standard hitting practices to attempt to make some sense of a possible correlation. A more upright stance may not have a huge effect on much, besides maybe feeling more relaxed and comfortable as he waits for the pitch to be delivered. I would typically associate this kind of change with someone looking to add more leverage and power to their swing, like Bellinger, Trout, Suarez, and Acuña Jr, but Winker actually hit for less power after the changes so we can’t really say that about him. However, we can definitely assume that improved contact and plate discipline were a result of quieting his movements and load. Slowing down movements and the load, for some hitters, allows for them to be more consistently on time for the pitch as well as allowing for more time to see the pitch and recognize any kind of spin it has. Being consistently on time for pitches would undoubtedly improve both his line drive rate and success against fastballs, while better pitch recognition would attribute to the improvements in his plate discipline and success against offspeed pitches. If you want some more proof, take a look at the swings of Eugenio Suarez or Ronald Acuña Jr. Both hitters have quiet hands and a slow leg lift, similar to the one Winker showed. Oh, and they mash too! My analysis could be totally wrong, but we’ve seen other hitters make similar adjustments and yield similar results as well, so I don’t think it’s too far fetched to think that these result-based improvements stemmed from the physical changes he made to his swing.
So What About 2020?
My experience as a college baseball player has taught me many things, but one of the biggest lessons is the importance of being comfortable in the batter’s box. Of course you won’t feel the same every day, but the more repeatable your swing is the more chance for consistent success you’ll probably have. I am not suggesting that Winker found his swing in 2019, because he didn’t. It wasn’t consistent or repeatable and unless your name is Cal Ripken Jr, you probably won’t have success constantly changing your batting stance. However, what I am suggesting is that Winker may be one small adjustment away from finding his swing. His 2019 season gave him a lot of experience in what may work for his swing and what may not. The changes he made throughout 2019 may be laying the foundation for 2020. If he’s able to combine the improved contact and walk rate with some of the power he had in his first three months, we’re looking at a breakout season. After all, he is still a 122 wRC+ hitter in 855 career PA’s, so he’s got a decently large MLB sample size that suggests he is an above average hitter.
In 10-team drafts, Winker is falling in the 28th round and currently has an ADP of 284.17. Of course Winker is not a top-20 outfielder and he probably won’t be a top-30 outfielder (maybe), but for where he is falling in drafts, he has plenty of fantasy value. ESPN’s player rater ranked him as the 111th best outfielder in 2019 and his ADP, according to Fantrax, ranks him as the 68th best outfielder heading into 2020. Sure, there’s some health and playing time vs LHP concerns (career 52 wRC+ vs lefties), but if your league values OBP or you need a pure hitter with some upside, he’s your sleeper pick.
Photo by Daniel Bartel/Icon Sportswire | Feature Graphic Designed by James Peterson (Follow @jhp_design714 on Instagram)