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The sudden fall of Matt Joyce

Matt Joyce has been a useful if unremarkable outfielder until this year. Now he's the worst qualified player in baseball.

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

The Angels' trade for Matt Joyce was a prototypically unremarkable trade for both sides that seemed to fit needs for both clubs. Joyce provided a lefty bat off the bench with power for the Angels, which had been something the team had lacked. In exchange for Joyce, the Rays received longtime Angels setup man Kevin Jepsen to fill an open spot in the back of their bullpen. All in all it was a fair trade.

If we take a gander at the fWAR leaderboards however, we find Mr. Joyce at the very bottom of the list with a ghastly -1.1 showing. Joyce was worth 1.9 fWAR in 2014 and 2.0 the year before. it's not that Joyce's age suddenly caught up with him. He's only 30, after all. Players usually don't suddenly fall off the face of the Earth at 30. Yet something is clearly happening to Joyce.

So, what is it? The difference that immediately presents itself is that Joyce is walking less often. This hasn't come with a side of elevated strikeouts (his strikeout rate is only up by a tick, per FanGraphs) but a walk rate fall from 12.6 percent to 8.2 percent is cause for concern. His .229 BABIP is a far cry from the .316 he produced last year as well, but the .316 was the highest it had been in years. In 2013, his BABIP was .251, and in 2012 it was .281. 2014 looks like an outlier in that regard, but so does 2015.

FanGraphs' new hard-hit rates don't offer much of an answer either. Joyce hasn't suddenly started making constant poor contact across the board. In fact, his batted ball numbers are strange across the board. Joyce has actually seen a fall in soft contact, and when that's paired in a small dip in ground ball rate (and the highest infield hit pace of his career in a full season) it looks like Joyce could actually be getting a little lucky, despite a fall in line drives. Why does Joyce only have a 71 wRC+?

Pitch F/X data provides some answers. The below chart from Brooks Baseball shows Joyce's whiff rates on the three general categories of pitches (hard, breaking, offspeed).

Joyce is being fooled more than ever on offspeed pitches this year. He's swinging and missing on those pitches at a 27.4 percent clip, to be exact. This sudden susceptibility to changeups and the like could simply be a result of small sample sizes and statistical noise, but when combined with some bad BABIP luck, a bad walk rate, being 0-3 on steal attempts and a pitcher's park in Anaheim, it all starts to form a concrete picture.

Joyce's value is further hurt by the fact that he's putting together an awful defensive campaign. He's already been worth -6 DRS (defensive runs saved), and while UZR takes a long time to stabilize, it says he's been 5.1 runs below average in the field. Both numbers are stark decreases from last year. The outfield in Anaheim is larger than the one in Tampa so that could be part of the problem for Joyce, but most players don't react this poorly to a change of home field.

Joyce has been heating up at the plate of late, and this could be the start of some positive regression. Nonetheless it's quite surprising to see a player go into a nosedive so quickly. Baseball's a weird game. There's little chance that Joyce has truly become this bad of a player this quickly and he should be expected to regress somewhat. That's not to say that this couldn't possibly be the start of a true downward turn for Joyce, but Angels fans should take solace in the theory that at least some of this is unsustainable.

Or he could be the next Stephen Drew, who suddenly fell off the face of a cliff in his early 30's. Regression or Drew-ification. Nothing in between. The baseball gods care not for your hopes and dreams. Oh, by the way, Kevin Jepsen has only barely been above replacement level (0.1 fWAR). Some trades go bad on both sides. Baseball, man.

. . .

Nicolas Stellini is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score who naturally hates the Angels because he wrote this article. Mike Trout probably kills puppies for fun. He also covers the Yankees and their Double-A affiliate, the Trenton Thunder, at Pinstripe Alley. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets.