Every year in baseball there are players who sneak up on you. Some simply put up numbers that aren’t consistent with their previous career results. Others have always had good results but for one reason or another wound up getting very little attention. Rarest of all are the players who put up good numbers every single year, get some recognition, and then are forgotten about again.
Without fail at some point during the season an article is written about how Player A has come out of nowhere. Only, a quick bit of research reveals that Player A has been consistently great and that the same article was written the year before, and the year before that, and so on and so forth. For the fourth year in a row, Player A is Cincinnati Reds outfielder Jesse Winker.
I can’t recall the site where I first read about Winker coming out of nowhere to put up great numbers. What I can recall is reading that article in 2018 and then reading another similar article in 2019. 20 games into the 2020 Major League Baseball season and Winker will inevitably find himself being written about as coming out of nowhere. I was almost that writer, until my shoddy memory said, “Hey, wait a minute, didn’t this guy come out of nowhere the past two seasons?”
When the 2017 season kicked off Winker was deservedly unknown to anyone outside of Cincinnati. He had put together quite an impressive Minor League Baseball stint up until that point. Yet, nothing about his tools or abilities made him stand out in such a way that he was ever considered a prospect of note. A quick Google search reveals little to no fanfare for Winker in any of baseball’s preeminent Top 100 prospects lists. That’s why no one paid much attention when Winker made his debut for the Reds on April 14th, 2017. Not knowing didn’t matter much that time around as Winker had 2 plate appearances in 2 games and found himself back in the minors until near the end of June.
When the former first-round pick in the MLB Amateur Draft came back up to the big leagues he was again met with relative apathy. He didn’t see a lot of playing time the rest of the 2017 season but he saw enough that people should have paid closer attention to him. In 137 plate appearances, he slashed .298/.375/.529 with 7 home runs. That was good enough for an above-average DRC+ of 112. The next season Winker stepped up to the plate 334 times and managed a .299/.405/.431 with 7 home runs yet again and a DRC+ of 118.
One would think that two years of well-above-average offensive production (despite missing most of 2018 with an injured shoulder) would result in Winker getting more of a chance in 2019. Except he didn’t, as the Reds limited his plate appearances to 384 last year, despite his relative health. Winker put up a slash line of .267/.357/.473 with 16 home runs and a DRC+ of 112. In consecutive seasons the left-handed batter had produced bWAR of 0.3, 0.8, and 2.2. Yet, he still remained unknown to everyone but Reds fans.
This year Winker has taken his above-average play to an entirely new level. Through 64 plate appearances, the New York native has slashed .365/.484/.712 with 5 home runs. That’s good enough for a DRC+ of 139. Baseball Prospectus has yet to calculate their bWAR for this year, but his fWAR from FanGraphs is already at 1.0 and chances are that his bWAR will track rather closely with that number.
Winker has gotten to where he is quietly but in 2020 the changes he has made to his approach explode at anyone paying attention. His Exit Velocity had hovered around the high 80s with a career-best 90.9 in 2018. This season his EV sits at 94.1, that’s good for top 5% in the league. Meanwhile, his Barrel% has massively improved, from 4.3 in 2019 to 15.8 this season. Getting better swings on the ball has also seen his ISO improve to .346, that’s over .100 better than his previous benchmark. Hitting the ball harder than ever has certainly helped to improve Winker’s profile at the dish.
That’s not to say that Winker won’t experience some sort of drop off. His BABIP sits at an unrealistically sustainable .424. It’s not the high number that is concerning, but rather that he’s swinging as hard as he is, has that high of a BABIP, and is striking out more, 21.9%, than he ever has in his career to this point. It’s pretty clear that Winker is exchanging steady contact for harder oomph when he does make bat meet ball. Presently that is paying off for him in truckloads, but as the season progresses there will likely be some regression in that department.
The thing is, even if Winker regresses towards the mean said mean is still an above-average hitter. It really shouldn’t be surprising that a slight change in approach has resulted in even better numbers for the Reds slugger. He’s always been a talented hitter, we just weren’t paying attention to him. Come this time next year there shouldn’t be any articles about Winker coming out of nowhere. He’s come out of nowhere for three straight years now. It’s high time the baseball world realizes Jesse Winker is a good hitter, has been for some time, and likely will be for many years to come.