Jesse Winker can hit. If you spend some time reading back through his yearly prospect scouting reports, regardless of the source, he had well above-average grades placed on his current and future hit tools. The commentary from the public prospect hounds was consistently effusive about his “natural feel” for hitting and his “extremely advanced approach.” While few ever doubted that Winker would hit for average and get on base – which has come true; he’s sporting a .288 batting average and .385 on-base percentages for his career – there were always questions about how much power he would eventually develop. In some reports, Winker’s power was given 30 grades. After being ranked as a consensus top-50 prospect in 2015 and 2016, Winker fell toward the bottom of the annual top 100 prospects lists before 2017 for his lack of power production. For a player described as “plodding” and “limited to an outfield corner,” hitting for power was the variable that would dictate how high the top end of Winker’s value would go.
Across parts of five minor league seasons before his MLB debut, Winker averaged between 10 and 15 home runs a season. But he hit only five combined home runs in almost 800 Triple-A plate appearances. He offset the lack of homers with a batting average over .300 and on-base percentage near .400, but the fears that his power would not develop seemed to be coming true.
Upon promotion to Cincinnati, Winker improved on his Triple-A power numbers, hitting 30 home runs over his first 855 big league plate appearances. All told, his combined .466 slugging percentage and .181 isolated power from 2017-2019 were slightly better than the MLB averages for all hitters and for corner outfielders, where he lined up most defensively.
When combined with a .285 batting average and .379 on-base percentage over the same span, Winker’s offensive production checked in about 20% better than league average (121 wRC+ combined). That success and modest power development notwithstanding, Winker’s game was not without its warts.
Always projected to be a limited (at best) defender in the outfield, Winker’s work with the glove gave back some of the value he generated with his bat. No matter which defensive metric you choose to use (DRS, UZR, OAA), and regardless of where Winker lined up in the outfield grass, he graded below average.
The lefty-swinging Winker also had dramatic platoon splits despite Cincinnati frequently shielding him from left-handed pitching.
Unlike a lot of hitters who struggle against same-handed pitching, Winker’s poor numbers when disadvantaged were not the result of massive strikeout issues. Against LHP, his strikeout and walk rates were 16.3% and 12.9%, respectively. Against RHP, those same marks were 15.0% and 11.7%. Instead, Winker’s struggles were largely the result of poor contact quality.
Per FanGraphs data, against LHP, his hard-hit rate was 31.4%. More than half his batted balls (52%) were hit on the ground with another 13.8% of them being mostly harmless infield pop flies. Against RHP, Winker made more hard contact (43.4%) and did a better job hitting the ball in the air on favorable trajectories, which is reflected in ground ball and infield fly rates of 45.8% and 4.7%, respectively.
Then came the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Winker’s production leaped. He looked as though he had put it all together, driven in large part by improvements in contact quality that led to more power. Winker launched 12 home runs in only 183 PA across 54 games, thanks in part to a fluky 40% home run to fly ball ratio. Thanks to the homers, Winker put up career-best slugging (.544) and isolated power (.289) numbers. In all, his .255/.388/.544 line equated to a .396 wOBA and 143 wRC+. The 1.4 fWAR Winker produced in that third of a full season compares favorably to the 2.3 cumulative fWAR he had produced to that point in his career.
Matt Wallach summed up Winker’s breakout when he wrote for Pitcher List last February: “Do you have a favorite measure of contact quality? Chances are that Winker set a new career-best in it last season.”
Whether it was hard-hit rate, barrel rate, average exit velocity, expected stats on contact, or just about any other measure of contact quality, Winker exceeded his previous career marks by significant margins (shaded in green).
Winker even showed signs of closing up his platoon gap — small sample size warning — when he hit .265/.390/.500 over 41 plate appearances against left-handed pitching.
Perhaps the only negative that came from Winker’s 2020 adjustments were that they came with costs in the form of more swings and misses and more strikeouts. His 28.9% whiff rate and 25.1% strikeout rate in 2020 were career worsts by at least ten percentage points from anything he had done to that point. In 2019, Winker scored in the 86th and 83rd percentiles of all players in those two categories, respectively. His 2020 marks came in all the way down to the 35th and 36th percentiles.
Even still, it did not look like he was indiscriminately selling out for power. Yes, Winker’s pull rate jumped up to 44.2% after sitting in the mid-30s previously, but he maintained his excellent plate discipline and set a new career-high in walk rate (15.3%, 91st percentile) and maintained a very good 19.4% chase rate (89th percentile). His pitch selection stayed strong, but he was missing the pitches he did go after a little more often than he ever had before, which seems like a logical byproduct of trying to hit for more power.
Despite the gains, it was hard to know for sure what to make of Winker coming into 2021. After all, his power breakout came in only a third of a season played in abnormal conditions. Making it even murkier was that the bulk of Winker’s 2020 production came from a torrid month of August when he hit .369/.459/.798 and bashed 10 of his 12 total home runs and 16 of his 19 total extra-base hits. In smaller samples in July and September, Winker hit only .108/.306/.215 combined.
The 2021 season offered an opportunity to demonstrate the new power was real over a much larger sample and more typical conditions.
Not only did Winker succeed in doing that last season by slashing .304/.395/.556 before an August intercostal strain ended his season after only 110 games and 485 plate appearances, but he did so while also shoring up the issues with whiffs and strikeouts.
Winker did not log enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, but he did improve over his breakout 2020 figures in nearly every offensive category. He complimented those rate numbers above with 24 home runs – on a 20% home run to fly ball ratio that was exactly in line with his career average – and 32 doubles which helped him produce .403 wOBA and 148 wRC+.
Unlike the prior season, Winker’s 2021 production was not driven by just a few hot weeks. He posted wOBAs over .390 and a monthly wRC+ over 140 in four of the five months he played significantly. (He only had four PA in September when he attempted to return early from his injury to help the Reds playoff push). His worst month at the plate was July, but even that yielded a still reasonable .306 wOBA and 85 wRC+.
Also unlike the prior season, it turned out that his 2020 small-sample success against southpaws was a mirage. Over 118 PA against LHP, Winker hit just .176/.288/.284, a line that good for .263 wOBA and just 57 wRC+ and looked a lot like his career numbers against lefties. Against same-handed pitchers, he did manage to have a 43.2% hard contact rate, but again bashed the ball into the ground (52.7%) or skied it high for infield popups (18.2%) at high rates.
Despite the return of the platoon struggles, Winker’s fantastic overall 2021 seasonal stats were driven by the retention of a lot of the contact quality gains that fueled his 2020 power breakout. His 2021 data was not quite as strong as in 2020, but still represented meaningful improvements over the first three seasons of his career. While the newfound power stuck around, Winker was also able to return his whiffs and strikeouts back near their prior levels. His 20.1% whiff rate scored in the 79th percentile and his 15.5% strikeout rate was in the 85th. Here’s the contact quality table again, this with 2021 data and strikeout and whiff rates added:
You can see from the light green shading that 2021 represented several second-best career marks. Somewhat surprisingly, Winker chased out of the zone at the highest rate of his career last season – 24.3%. While that represents a bit of a departure for Winker and seems counter to his whiffs and strikeouts decreasing, it was still a well above league average mark that landed in the 71st percentile.
That increased chase rate also contains the key to Winker’s solution for bringing his strikeouts back in line. He simply swung more often and earlier in counts. Per Statcast data, his overall 45.1% swing rate, 34.1% first-pitch swing rate, 68.2% in zone swing rate, and 83.2% meatball swing rates were all the highest of his career. No doubt in part because he was swinging more often, Winker’s pitches seen per plate appearance decreased year over year for the first time in 2021. He had increased his pitches seen annually – from 3.64 as a rookie, to 3.80, 3.98, and then 4.28 in 2021 – until last season when he saw 3.91 pitches per trip.
Part of what drove that is Winker’s maturing ability to manage ball-strike counts and get himself into favorable positions. As he told FanGraphs’ David Laurila back in 2019, “I like to hunt my zone. Every time. I want to hunt what I want to hunt. I think it’s too hard to cover the whole plate. These guys throw too hard, and their balls move too late, so you need to know your zone, and where you can do the most damage. And you also have to know the pitchers. If you know a guy isn’t going to throw you anything inside, what’s the point of looking inside?”
Winker succeeded in hunting for pitches in favorable spots last season. While he returned to his former ways of using all fields (37.9% pull rate), he consistently hit the ball in the air and on a line than he had any point before, as evidenced by his career-low 42.5% ground ball rate and career-high 25.8% fly ball rate in 2021. A big reason he was able to do that is that he saw a career-high share (31.9%) of pitches when he had the count advantage, which is a major key to offensive success.
The now aggressively swinging and power-hunting Winker capitalized on those ahead in the count situations by pulling his batted balls (45.0%) and pulling his batted balls in the air (6.7%) at the highest rates of his career when he had the count advantage. As a result, Winker slugged .650, hit half of his 24 home runs (and 12 doubles) when he was ahead in the count. Hunt your zone where you can do the most damage, indeed.
As a result of his refined pitch hunting approach, Winker was able to maintain his increased power production without sacrificing much of his plate discipline. The great balance of aggressiveness and patience that he has found has resulted in Winker becoming one of baseball’s most potent power and on-base combinations.
Over the past two seasons combined, Winker is one of just seven players to post an on-base percentage above .375 and a slugging percentage above .550. The other members of that club are a who’s who list of premier offensive stalwarts:
If you are a fan of stat clubs with seemingly arbitrary entry criteria, here’s another. Per Statcast’s Swing/Take leaderboard, only two players – Shohei Ohtani and Austin Riley – had positive cumulative run values in each of the four major attack zones last season. Avisaíl Garcia nearly made that list, too. He was positive in three zones and fought the shadow zone to a draw: 0 runs. Only four more players – Giancarlo Stanton, Bryce Harper, Luis Robert, and Winker – were positive in three zones and -1 in the fourth.
As it stands, Winker has gone a long way toward closing the perceived gaps from his prospect scouting reports. He has hit for average and gotten on base, as was expected. He has also proven that he can hit with legitimate power while getting on base at elite rates. All that is left for him to do now is stay healthy enough to play a full season’s worth of games for the first time in his major league career and make some progress on closing that pesky platoon split deficit.
Given his defensive limitations, Winker is a prime candidate for being a near full-time designated hitter, should the next collective bargaining agreement expand that role to the National League, as some expect to happen. That may offer the added benefit of limiting the daily wear and tear of manning the outfield and may help him stay healthy,
Even with the struggles against lefties, Jesse Winker can hit. As a result, he has established himself as an elite offensive performer who delivers a rare blend of the on-base and power worlds.
Feature photo by Scott Kane/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)