Going Deep: The Next Great Cincinnati Red
If you were to think about MLB players with elite on-base% skills, who do you think about? Is it the current king of walks 1B Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds? How about superstar OF Bryce Harper who is a current free agent, or maybe OF Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees? All good guesses, my fellow fantasy lovers. But what if I told you that the player with the sixth best OBP (min. 300 plate appearances) is going in the 200s in terms of early NFBC ADP? You would want to draft him right? Well folks, let me introduce you to the next Cincinnati Reds on-base machine, OF Jesse Winker.
Recently, my colleague here at Pitcher List Michael Ajeto said something that I feel rings true, and that is that “People love Comparisons” so let me throw one at you:
Well dang, both Winker and player B seem pretty good! While player B is the more valuable player in fantasy, Jesse Winker isn’t far off. Player B is Joey Votto’s age 24 season in 2007, and it is striking just how similar both stat lines are.
“But Jamie,” you question, “Votto is an elite fantasy option and has been for many years”. Good point, my intellectual reader. Let’s try and see just how much Winker and Votto are alike. Let’s begin!
Jesse Winker’s Skills
Winker was drafted in 2012 by the Cincinnati Reds in the supplemental first round, and at the time of the draft, he was lauded for his quick swing and stellar plate discipline (sound familiar?). Throughout his journey in professional ball, he’s never had an OBP below .375, except for a short stint in AA in 2014. Even in that short stint he still walked over 15% of the time, proving just how much he loves to walk. He did lots of walking last year as he posted a 14.7% mark in 2018. He also has shown high-end contact skills as he’s posted above-average swinging-strike rates at every level since 2015 including a 5.8% mark last year in the majors, which would have ranked 13th best in the majors if he had enough innings to qualify. That elite swinging-strike rate helped contribute to a 13.8% strikeout rate last year in the majors which is especially impressive considering Winker’s patience. Yes, Winker actually walked more than he struck out last year which is a fairly rare feat. In fact, last season there were only five players (min 300. PA) that walked more than they struck out: Jose Ramirez of the Cleveland Indians, Carlos Santana now of the Cleveland Indians, Alex Bregman of the Houston Astros, and then Joey Votto and Jesse Winker. Votto in the minors had a career 13% walk rate, compared to Winkers 13.8% career minors walk rate. It’s clear by the numbers both of these Cincinnati Reds can take a walk.
Not only can Winker walk, but he also has an elite approach when it comes to swinging the bat. In 2018 Winker utilized an “all-fields” approach to hitting, posting pull, center and opposite field percentages of 37.1%, 37.1% and 25.7%. Comparing that again to Votto, he posted a more complete albeit similar all-fields approach, with 35.3%, 33.8% and 30.9%. Using an all-fields approach like this makes them more complete hitters, not allowing the other team to use the shift against them as they have no glaring weaknesses. Looking at the batted ball overlays of both Winker and Votto you can see both players have all-fields power as well, hitting home runs to left, center and right.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE (Billy Mays would be so proud). Looking at plate discipline metrics, both Winker and Votto posted elite contact percentages (85.6% and 84.6% respectively) and Swinging Strike percentages (5.8% and 6%), with the latter stat placing them in the top 10th percentile. As C Jonathan Lucroy can tell you though, having just a high contact % doesn’t always equal success; if you’re swinging at everything, no matter how much contact you make it won’t always be quality. To pick on Lucroy some more, while he wasn’t the worst perpetrator of swinging at outside pitches, he ranked fairly high with a 30.8% O-Swing percentage and made contact on said pitches 79.2% of the time. When you’re doing this you’re not going to be able to drive as many balls, leading to a spiked ground ball and infield fly ball rate for Lucroy (41.9% and 13.4% respectively). Votto, of course, is known for his special ability at not swinging at outside pitches, posting a minuscule 16.4% O-swing % (2nd in MLB) while Winker himself was high on the list, ranking 23rd with a 22.8% rate. This allows the duo to better drive pitches in the area’s they’re looking for.
What to Expect
Winker’s 2019 could resemble something like Votto’s last year slash line of .284/.417/.419, however, it doesn’t take much thought to think there may be more power in Winker’s bat. On the surface, Winker’s 2017 looked to be the better season in terms of power output. Stats such as exit velocity, hard hit %, etc. beg to differ, and all show Winker hit the ball with more authority in 2018. His EV rose from a pedestrian 87.5 MPH to 90.2 and his hard hit % a whopping 8.2% to 43.9%. Just to give some context, that was ahead of phenom OF Juan Soto of the Washington Nationals, masher Edwin Encarnacion now of the Seattle Mariners, and Colorado Rockies star 3B Nolan Arenado, so clearly Winker was hitting the ball quite hard. Towards the end of his 2018 season, Winker really started mashing the ball. From June 18th till July 24th when he was shut down he averaged a 173 wRC+, a 45% hard contact rate and a .434 wOBA. Jesse Winker was on a tear, and the only thing stopping him was a shoulder issue. He would end the season with a .366 wOBA, which when set at a minimum of 300 PA, would put Winker as the 33rd best hitter, above names such as Oakland Athletics OF Khris Davis, Houston Astros 2B Jose Altuve, and Philadelphia Phillies 1B Rhys Hoskins.
|2018||EV (MPH)||Hard Hit %||wOBA||Launch Angle %|
It is quite possible that Winker was also unlucky. He hit 33.9% of his batted balls for fly balls and only had an 8.9% HR/FB rate. The average HR/FB rate in 2018 was 12.7%, so Winker probably should have had more of his fly balls leave the park for home runs, especially when he gets to play half his games in the ballpark that has the greatest HR Park Factor. His launch angle while not optimal for fly balls is still good enough to produce 20-25 HR power. A 13.2% launch angle was the exact same as AJ Pollock and higher than DH Nelson Cruz and Atlanta Braves OF Ronald Acuña.
Coming back to the shoulder issue, another beacon of hope with Jesse Winker is that said shoulder had been bothering him for up to 2-3 years. I’m no doctor, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that shoulder had been causing some power issues and fixing it should only aid in Winker’s ability to drive the ball. His manager Jim Riggleman said at the time that Winker had to alter his swing because of the pain. Winker should be all healed up by the start of February and be ready for opening day.
Steamer projects a line of .284/.377/.431 line with 17 HRs, 69 RBI and even 3 stolen bases. In OBP leagues this is obviously very valuable, and if the shoulder has sapped some of the power as many speculate there’s more on the way. A .290/.390/.480 slash-line is more than obtainable, and right along the lines of Brandon Nimmo’s 2018 (which was the 17th highest OPS in the MLB).
Not Very Votto Like
Alas, not everything with Winker’s profile screams Joey Votto 2.0. While Winker does generate a lot of hard contact on his pull-side, 58.6% of it ends as a ground ball. This means that more often than not over half of his pulled balls will end up in the opposing teams first-base glove and not be as productive an at-bat. Groundballs aren’t useless and can lead to higher BABIP’s, however, LDs and FBs are the much more impactful outcome. This could have been an issue because of the bum shoulder and is something that can hopefully be fixed. Like previously mentioned, Winker uses the whole field to his advantage, and should still be a very productive bat even if growth isn’t immediate in the pull side department.
So, to sum it all up, we have a player that:
- Has elite pitch recognition and contact skills.
- Plays in a favorable hitters park.
- Shown flashes of power in the past.
- Ability to put up .290+ batting averages.
Now, of course, there are some other concerns keeping his draft price so low. Shoulder injuries are a tricky thing to come back from, and just like we saw with New York Mets OF Michael Conforto this past year, the power may take some time to develop. Likewise, from all reports, the Reds are looking for some outfield help and could acquire not only a center fielder but a corner one as well through trade. Playing time is one of the bigger factors with a profile like Winker as the walks in points leagues are very helpful the more plate appearances a hitter can get. Even with the fantastic offensive production, he’s not exactly the best fielder either. Defense doesn’t matter in fantasy, but last year he was worth -1.9 dWAR in limited playing time, so he could lose playing time late in games for substitutions or starts for a more defensive minded outfielder. With the Reds seemingly buying to compete, Winker might not have the longest of a leash if he can’t improve his defense. It’s also possible he ends up in a platoon, only slashing .183/.302/293 versus southpaws in his MLB career (albeit only 97 PA’s).
These issues are baked into the price of drafting Winker though. He’s currently going 211th, right around consistently hurt Adam Eaton of the Washington Nationals, underwhelming Philadelphia Phillies OF Odubel Herrera, and Milwaukee Brewers OF Ryan Braun, who’s got a trifecta of playing time, injury and age concerns. In standard 12 team leagues Winker is currently going in the 17th round, which is the perfect time to take a chance on him. While the possibility that his pull-side issues make him a less than valuable bat, dropping a 17th rounder isn’t going to destroy your fantasy season. People also forget Winker is only 25. He’s still fairly young, but prospect fatigue has set in with Winker causing him to become a post-hype sleeper, making him a good buy-low in Dynasty / Keeper leagues.
Jesse Winker isn’t Joey Votto. He may never be close to peak Votto. Votto is probably the best hitter of the past decade, and very, very, very few people can claim to have a career as good as his. He’s currently 10th in active WAR at 58.8 and 7th all-time in OBP. He’s a legend we’ve all been blessed to get to watch do whatever he wants. But if you squint JUST hard enough, you can see some of the same abilities in Winker that made us love Joey in fantasy. And at Winker’s current price, well baby, I just can’t quit him.
(Photo by Daniel Bartel/Icon Sportswire)