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Matt Joyce is good again

Matt Joyce had a terrible 2015, but he has been great this season for the Pirates. What happened?

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last couple of years, we have seen the Pittsburgh Pirates take in struggling players and somehow manage to garner solid production from them. The veteran Major Leaguers who turn things around as members of the Pirates occasionally get tagged with the ‘just needed a change in scenery’ narrative, but the fact of the matter is all of these so-called reclamation projects make some type of adjustment with their mechanics and/or approach. In addition to being the most recent player to match this description, outfielder Matt Joyce is a perfect example. Not only is he playing well as Pittsburgh’s fourth outfielder, but the mechanical and approach adjustments Joyce made that are behind his great play lead me believe that he is here to stay.

A "productive Joyce" was a far cry from what we saw in 2015, a season where he posted a .174/.272/.291 slash line in 284 plate appearances for the Los Angeles Angels. Having fallen off a metaphorical cliff, there weren’t many positives to look for. The struggles weren’t at all hidden, but they were pretty well summed up by a 62 wRC+. A player who stood to benefit from a good contract year had anything but, and even Joyce’s ability to be a decent platoon option had apparently disappeared.

Fast-forward to this season, and calling Joyce productive at the plate might be an understatement. In 177 plate appearances Joyce has been sensational. Not only has he managed to go from ‘well below average’ to ‘well above average’, in terms of wRC+, but Joyce has done most of it without having owning a starting role. That’s no surprise, since Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco are having two of the best seasons of their respective careers, and although Andrew McCutchen has struggled heavily, it is much too early to give up on him.

It’s unfortunate that Joyce is stuck in a logjam like this, but how has he been able to turn things around in such a quick, drastic way? Let’s start with how Joyce has lowered his hands:

Joyce hands 2015

Joyce hands 2016

As you can see, compared to 2015 Joyce’s hands are lower and a little further out from his body. Lower hands allow a hitter to get to the zone quicker, but they can help a batter get through the zone smoother and stay in the zone longer. It’s a lot like what Jake Lamb has done this season, in that it helps to keep his bat in the zone longer and can even allow a hitter to get more lift on the ball. In fact, Pedro Moura of the LA Times described how Joyce’s former manager, Mike Scioscia, was not surprised of this adjustment at all:

Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said Friday he was not surprised that Joyce reversed the course of his career. He said it seemed to him that Joyce made the adjustments that the Angels’ coaches asked him to make, lowering his hands to achieve a smoother swing plane.

"He had kind of toyed with them last year, but I think he committed to them over the winter," Scioscia said. "Just looking at the video we saw, he’s got a more consistent path to the ball."

And that statement is backed up by statcast data taken from Baseball Savant:

You can tell that Joyce now appears to be more consistent in his launch angle, though the small sample-size poses an obvious caveat. Thus far the lefty has gone from an average launch angle of 14.8 degrees to one much closer to 10 degrees.

Lowering a players’ hands which contribute to a lower launch angle sound good, but there is a downside—a lower launch angle typically means more ground balls. Joyce is no exception, as his current ground ball rate is the highest of his career, but getting the ball into the line-drive/ground ball category has done wonders for his BABIP. Those two batted ball types, of course, lead to more hits than fly balls (though fly balls result in more extra base hits) and are probably why we’ve seen his BABIP go from .215 in 2015 to .333 this season. Just a six percent lower fly ball rate isn’t the sole reason for such a change, of course, but it is definitely a factor.

Another reason we have seen Joyce’s resurgence is that he is hitting everything harder. We’ve seen him absolutely demolish some baseballs this season, and his power surge comes from more than just lower hands. It’s Joyce now using a toe-tap in addition to having a more pronounced load:

Here we can see that Joyce has incorporated a toe tap into his swing, which has worked well thus far to help his timing. It isn’t the toe tap itself that is inherently creating his power, it is the application. It allows Joyce to not be just early or just late, helps create a smoother transition of weight from front- to back-end, and works for him much better than the small leg kick he deployed in 2015. Speaking of transitioning weight, one thing you might also notice is the shifting of Joyce’s weight. Following the toe-tap, Joyce now becomes compact before his swing. This has helped him create power, and his ability to adopt this quickly is why we have seen Joyce’s exit velocity and hard-hit rate noticeably up.

So he is hitting the ball harder, and he has changed his approach at the plate to compliment that. You could point to his 38 percent swing rate and say that he is more selective than previous years, but it’s not just that he is more selective. Joyce is swinging a whole lot less, but it’s not that he has been swinging less that matters, it’s where he is swinging more.

Although pitchers tend to throw him down and away, Joyce just hasn’t been willing to chase those offerings. He has been the epitome of a hitter looking for his pitch, not offering weaker contact at the pitches that pitchers want him to swing at. Sure, it’s a reason his strikeout rate is ~24 percent, but that comes from not changing his approach on two strikes. Selectivity has helped raise his quality of contact at the expense of striking out at a high rate:

Selectivity is also one of the reasons we’ve seen his walk rate spike to 17.5 percent, as a willingness to wait for his pitch has also made him unwilling to chase out of the zone. It's a desire to not sacrifice solid contact just to put the ball in play, to not get cheated on any swings and try to do the most damage possible. Out of all hitters with at least 150 plate appearances, nobody swings at pitches outside the zone less than Matt Joyce. Joyce has instead opted to pummel pitches up in the zone. He is looking for one pitch to do damage with, and he's cashed in so far once he has gotten it.

The Pirates took a flyer on Joyce coming into this season by signing him to a minor league deal with an invite to Spring Training, and it has paid off royally for them. Joyce has been one of the most productive bats on the team, even though he has yet to crack 200 plate appearances. He might be shrouded with a small sample-size now, but because they are accompanied by legitimate adjustments it’s hard for me to say they’re just a mirage.

Seemingly subtle changes have compounded to help revitalize Joyce and allow him to produce at a high level. I mentioned earlier that his playing time is limited thanks to the Pirates outfield logjam, and it’s incredible that a lot of this has come off the bench — starting on occasion. Nevertheless, adjusted mechanics have helped Joyce generate more power, while his selectivity has helped raise his quality of contact. Combine both of those, and you can see how Joyce has seen an uptick in power this season, and how hitting the ball harder has resulted in better output. Matt Joyce is yet another player who has rebounded his career in the Steel City, but the reasons are far from a change in scenery.

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Shawn Brody is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score, as well as a pitcher soon-to-undergo Tommy John for Howard Payne University. There he is a Junior majoring in Business Management with a minor in Computer Information Systems. You can follow him on Twitter @ShawnBrody or email him at Shawnbrody9@gmail.com