by Steve Mancuso

Where Jesse Winker fits

Start with the über-prospect, an infielder-turned-centerfielder who returns from a below-expectation rookie season and major offseason shoulder surgery. Next, his apparent backup is 32 years old and yet to play in an MLB game. There’s a right field candidate who was All-World in August and All-Bust in September. Another with promising numbers against left-handed pitchers over a smallish sample size and bundled with questionable defense. A final teammate hit 30 home runs in 2017 and two last year.

“Some Assembly Required”

That’s the packaging label Reds manager David Bell finds stuck to the box of outfielders on the Reds 40-man roster. Nick Castellanos in one corner, then what? FanGraphs writer Dan Szymborski put it this way:

“The (Reds) outfield is … a bit like a giant vat of Legos in which the Star Wars set, the Raiders of the Lost Ark set, and the Requiem for a Dream set have all been tossed together, with some scattered Erector parts thrown in; you’re just trying to build a nice little house but keep finding lightsabers and fedoras.”

Szymborski wrote that before the Reds inked Castellanos. Otherwise it remains an apt description of the jumble of puzzle pieces on Bell’s desk. A critical — maybe most important — part of his job this spring is figuring out which outfielders go where and when.

Do we still have to ask where Jesse Winker fits in?

Reds fans can be excused for not quite knowing Winker. On the one hand, Jesse Winker has been in the Reds organization for more than one, two, three, four, five, six … seven years. He’s played portions of the past three for the major league club.

Ah, but “portions” hails the uncertainty. Due to an assortment of injuries, Winker has yet to play anything close to an entire season for the Reds. Further, he’s been positioned about a hundred games in left field, another hundred in right and even twenty or so in center. Winker has batted most in the leadoff spot, but in 160 of his 249 games he hit somewhere else. In a head-scratching 48 hours, Winker went from being Jim Riggleman’s odd man out to the Reds starting left fielder and #5 hitter.

With no regular position or consistent spot in the batting order and the injury-shortened seasons, it’s no wonder Reds fans may not know what the club has in Jesse Winker. Let’s sort through the data and see if we can gain a reasonable sense of Winker at the plate and then what to expect in 2020.

[Photo: https://twitter.com/Reds/status/933509191909740544/photo/1]

Winker’s path to the Majors

The Reds chose Jesse Winker in the compensation round of the 2012 amateur draft. The pick, #49 overall, came courtesy of losing catcher Ramon Hernandez to free agency.

The club had taken pitcher Nick Travieso with its regular first round pick, the #14 selection. Other notable first-round choices that day were Lucas Sims as #21 for Atlanta, Travis Jankowski #33 by the Padres, Corey Seager #18 by the Dodgers and Kevin Gausman, the #4 overall pick by the Baltimore Orioles.

Winker was an 18-year-old out of Olympia High School in the Orlando area and followed a normal-to-fast course through the Reds minor league affiliates. He spent the rest of 2012 with other rookies in Billings. Next year, he played at low-A Dayton. In 2014, he started with high-A Bakersfield and finished with AA-Pensacola, where he also would spend all of 2015. The Reds promoted Winker to AAA-Louisville in 2016 where he played a full season.

In 2017, Bryan Price’s big league club began with Adam Duvall, Billy Hamilton and Scott Schebler across the Great American Ball Park outfield. Arismendy Alcantara and Patrick Kivlehan were, um, the outfield backups. Jesse Winker started the 2017 season in Louisville.

The Reds didn’t wait long to call up Winker, though his debut stay in the majors was short. On Friday, April 14, Winker was summoned and pinch hit that night for lead-off hitter Billy Hamilton against Milwaukee. Winker struck out. The next day, he pinch hit for the pitcher and doubled in two runs. Winker’s reward was a prompt westward trip along the Ohio.

That was the start of a yearlong up-and-down shuttle for Winker. The Reds called him back two months later for five days. Two weeks after that he spent eleven days with the big league club. Finally, on August 1, Jesse Winker became a Major League player for good.

Winker’s performance in the Minors and prospect status

Across six seasons, 2012-2017, Jesse Winker had 2438 minor league plate appearances. His performance was consistent. Winker’s batting average was almost .300 at .298. His walk-rate was a terrific 13.5%, producing an on-base percentage of .398. He hit for power (more on this in a bit) in varying degrees. His slugging percentage was .449, which meant his isolated power (ISO) was .151.

Winker split playing time between left and right field. He played both positions for Billings, but focused on left field the next two seasons. In 2015 and 2016, he played both corner spots. Then with the Bats in 2017, he was mainly a right fielder.

Winker was a top Reds prospect from the start. Heading into the 2014 season, sources had Winker rated in the organization’s top five. In 2015 and 2016, Winker was first or second, depending on how much the person doing the rating thought of Robert Stephenson. Minor League Baseball had Winker #1 in 2015. FanGraphs had him #3 in 2015 and #1 in 2016. Baseball Prospectus had him #2 and #3 in the Reds system those two seasons. MLB Pipeline had Winker #2 in 2015 (behind Jose Peraza) and #1 in 2016.

In terms of MLB as a whole, Jesse Winker’s hit and on-base skills had propelled him to the top half of most Top-100 prospect lists by 2015. After 2015, he fell a bit primarily due to concerns over his power, but remained in the bottom-half of those lists of baseball’s elite prospects.

Winker’s injury history

Jesse Winker made a few trips to the disabled list as a minor league player. A bone bruise put him on the DL in 2013. In 2014, Winker suffered a concussion and missed 10 days, then a sprained right wrist cost him five weeks. Another wrist injury put him out a month of the 2016 season. None of these were viewed as chronic conditions.

Yet a large part of Winker’s narrative is that he has yet to play a full season for the Reds. In 2017, a few weeks after his final call-up, Winker suffered a left hip flexor strain, missing two-and-a-half weeks. He returned for 17 games at the end of September and played almost every day as the Reds finished their second consecutive 68-94 season.

Winker made the Reds 2018 Opening Day roster, but the starting outfield of Duvall, Hamilton and Schebler remained intact for Bryan Price. Winker played regularly after that though, earning 274 plate appearances in the season’s first three months. But on July 23, he landed on his non-throwing shoulder and suffered a partial dislocation. Winker went on the DL three days later, then underwent season-ending surgery.

In 2019, Winker was the Reds Opening Day lead-off hitter for new manager David Bell. For most of the season, Bell used Winker in a tight platoon until the left fielder suffered a neck strain in late August. A neck strain is tearing of the muscles or tendons that connect to the spine. It’s similar to the injury of whiplash in a car accident. The severity, and therefore recovery period, depends on how many fibers were torn. Rest, not surgery, is the treatment. In Winker’s case, he missed the rest of the season.

Winker reports the good news that he’s “100 percent” for 2020. He said at Redsfest: “It’s the first time in a long time that I can look at you guys and say I felt 100 percent for an extended period of time. It’s been a productive offseason for me. I’ve swung and done some throwing. Everything feels great.” Winker stayed in Cincinnati during the offseason instead of going back to Florida so he could workout at GABP.

Winker’s Major League hitting

The hit and plate discipline tools Jesse Winker showed in nearly 2500 minor league plate appearances have continued in the major leagues. Winker has 855 plate appearances for the Reds and hit .285/.379/.466. That works out to 22 percent above league average in run creation (wRC+ 122).

Over those three seasons, the major league batting average was .252 so Winker has been far above league average batting .285. Only 37 big league players (850 PA minimum) have better averages. Winker’s walk rate of 11.9% is also in the top 50 among major leaguers in that time.

Since 2017, Jesse Winker’s on-base percentage (OBP) of .379 ranks 20th in the majors. Ahead of him are the names Trout, Votto, Soto, Judge, Yelich, Rendon, Harper, Freeman, Rizzo, Bryant, Altuve, Bregman, Goldschmidt and a couple more.

Winker has been an above-average major league hitter from the jump. Note how consistent his 50-day rolling average has been above MLB average (the red line):

In fact, consistency is the hallmark of Winker’s offensive output. He’s had slumps and hot streaks like any player. But his production season-by-season has been steady.

These are “expected” (x) stats, based on the actual balls batted by Winker, but adjusted for defense, ballparks and luck. Winker’s batting average and slugging have been consistent from year to year and much better than MLB average (right column). The stat xwOBA counts strikeouts and walks in addition to measuring quality of contact. When those two outcomes are included, Winker’s production has been consistent and well above average. The bottom row xwOBAcon is the same contact metric minus walks and strikeouts. Again, Winker is consistent across years, but more in line with the league. The bottom two rows make it clear that what separates Winker is his management of balls and strikes.

Winker’s power 

As Jesse Winker moved through the minor leagues, a significant question developed about his power. In nearly 800 plate appearances at AAA-Louisville, Winker hit only 5 home runs. His isolated power (ISO) was just .087.

[ISO is a better measure of pure power than SLG (slugging) since ISO only counts extra-base hits. SLG counts singles as well. The formula for ISO is simply SLG-AVG = ISO.]

League average ISO over the past three seasons has been .172. An ISO of .087 in the major leagues would have put Winker in the power category of Billy Hamilton, Dee Gordon and Ben Revere. A corner outfielder with little pop, no speed and below-average defense doesn’t contribute much to a major league team.

But Winker began to put concerns about his power to rest during his 47 major league games in 2017. His ISO of .231 over 137 plate appearances (7 homers) was encouraging. His ISO dipped to .132 in 2018, which was lower than average but still much better than his AAA days. In 2019, Winker’s ISO was a healthy .204.

Winker did tweak his approach from 2018 to 2019. He sacrificed a bit of plate control for power. Winker’s walk rate fell from 15% to 10% and strikeout rate ticked up from 13.8% to 15.6%. Both those 2019 numbers are still better than MLB average, but they do indicate a modest change for Winker. Winker’s chase-rate (swinging at pitches outside the strike zone) rose from 17.6% in 2018 to 21.8% in 2019.

Winker’s handedness split

Jesse Winker had demonstrated a handedness split of varying degrees in his minor league seasons. As a left-handed batter, he hit better against right-handed pitchers than left-handed pitchers. From 2015-2017, that’s Winker’s year in AA and two in AAA, his OPS was about .830 against RHP and about .710 against LHP.

That gap has continued in the major leagues.

(Yes, that’s right. Winker didn’t have an extra-base hit in 50 plate appearances against LHP in 2019.)

Jesse Winker has been much better than average against RHP and much worse against lefties. His wRC+ (run creation) against right-handed pitchers has been 37 percent above MLB average and 48 percent below against left-handed pitchers. That’s an enormous difference.

The power gap, as shown by ISO, was most profound during the 2017 and 2019 seasons when Winker hit for more power overall. In 2018, when Winker was more careful at the plate — he had more walks than strikeouts — his handedness gap almost disappeared, although at substantial cost to his power.

If you wonder why David Bell starts Phillip Ervin and Aristides Aquino instead of Jesse Winker against left-handed pitchers, it’s because they have .308 xwOBA and .328 xwOBA against LHP respectively. Winker’s career xwOBA LHP split is .293. It’s worth noting that the xwOBA gap between Winker and Ervin and Aquino isn’t as large as you might expect because Winker maintains his excellent BB% (12.9%) and K% (16.3%) when he faces lefties. The gap in pure power (ISO) though is exactly what you’d expect: Winker .072, Ervin .223 and Aquino .306.

Winker’s part of the solution

Yes, the Reds 2020 outfield roster resembles a pile of disassembled parts worthy of IKEA. But a look at the numbers helps put it together, at least with Jesse Winker. Consistent data emerges if we avoid being distracted by Winker’s fits and starts and provides an instruction manual for what to expect from Jesse Winker and his role.

But be careful. Winker’s 2019 season offers delicious cherries to pick if you choose. For example, in his last 100 plate appearances, Winker hit at a near-MVP clip of .326/.437/.512; that’s a wRC+ of 149. But you’d be guilty of recency bias or wearing Rosie Reds glasses to rely on such a small sample.

Instead, based on his career, book these numbers for 2020: Jesse Winker will bat .280, about 30 points above league average. He’ll walk 11% of the time, producing an on-base percentage of .370. That’s 50 points above the MLB median. Winker’s power will be right around average. If he gets 450 plate appearances, Winker will hit 18 home runs, depending on the ball’s jumpiness this year.

Manager David Bell will unravel this part of the outfield tangle. He’ll make sure that 85% of Jesse Winker’s plate appearances are against right-handed pitchers. (Aiming for a higher percentage than that is harder than you imagine.)

All told, Jesse Winker will be good for 20% above league average in run production and that’ll do.

Steve Mancuso is a lifelong Reds fan who grew up during the Big Red Machine era. He’s been writing about the Reds for more than ten years. Steve’s fondest memories about the Reds include attending a couple 1975 World Series games, being at Homer Bailey’s second no-hitter and going nuts for Jay Bruce at Clinchmas. Steve was also at all three games of the 2012 NLDS, but it’s too soon to talk about that.

7 Comments

  • R Smith

    Great review. Baseball jumpiness in 2019 was a big deal. MLB must be addressing this for 2020 but it’s being overshadowed by other issues threatening the integrity of the game. Time for a new voice leading MLB.

    • Steve Mancuso

      Thanks. Winker’s ISO has fluctuated, but probably safe to say he’s at least league average when it comes to power. That’s good enough since he has elite hit and plate discipline skills.

    • Steve Mancuso

      Thanks. It was interesting to research. Because we haven’t had an entire year of Winker, it’s been harder to make an assessment without really digging into the partial years. I’m optimistic about his overall contribution to run scoring, but his rep as a “platoon player” is well deserved and unlikely to change. But you never know!

  • Jefferson Green

    Thanks, Steve. What odds would you put on Jesse upping his production over his MLB track record due to better health (particularly another year removed from shoulder surgery, with a full off season to work out)?

    • Steve Mancuso

      He might get his ISO up to .250 for a season. That would be terrific given his already top-notch hit and plate discipline skills. My best guess is that he’ll continue at his level from the past three seasons.

      • Jefferson Green

        Thanks, Steve. It’s Saturday morning with a good cup of coffee, and I’m reading about our Redlegs for a little while. Spring Training makes it easy to drift back to being a small kid and eagerly declaring to friends how each of our favorite players was going to breakout and make the All Star team, probably winning the triple crown along the way.In that vein, I’ll declare that Jesse will hit .310 with a .280 ISO and a .410 OBP to generate a cool 1.000 OPS. Meanwhile back on planet earth, I’ll optimistically hope for a 12% walk rate and a .240 ISO. If he can maintain his established averages for walk and contact profile, any bump in power will make a big difference for his production, taking him from good hitter to excellent hitter. Happy Spring Training!