Reds Fans Need to Appreciate Outfielder Jesse Winker More

The young left fielder has quietly become one of the best hitters in the National League.
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If we go back to 1908—and when I say “we” I mean Joel Luckhaupt, statistician for Reds television broadcasts on Fox Sports Ohio and all-around good guy, with an assist from yours truly—we can find 414 hitters who played at least 164 games for the Cincinnati Reds. Of those 414, only eight managed to post an on-base percentage of .370 and a slugging percentage of .450 through their first 164 games with the club.

 

Those eight include baseball legend Frank Robinson and two others who ended up as members of the Reds Hall of Fame (Vada Pinson and Adam Dunn). The list also includes Ed Bailey, a catcher who played in six All-Star Games, and two young stars whose careers were never the same after injury (Kal Daniels and Austin Kearns). The seventh guy in this group is Bernie Carbo, who won Rookie of the Year for the Reds and was in line to become an important cog in the Big Red Machine before personal demons diminished his ability and shortened his career.

The final name is, yep, you guessed it: Jesse Winker. His career stats through his first 164 games with the Reds: .288/.383/.473 with 25 doubles, 22 home runs, 71 RBI and an OPS+ of 125. In other words, Winker has been really good.

I was already planning to write about Jesse Winker for this week’s column in the digital pages of Cincinnati Magazine before I saw Joel’s research cited above, and not only because Winker just hit a game-winning home run against the Mets. It was long past time for us to take a look at Cincinnati’s young left fielder, mainly because I get the sense that most Reds fans likely don’t realize that Winker has perhaps been the best hitter on the club so far in 2019.

Cincinnati’s offense was unquestionably the culprit as the Reds stumbled out of the gate to a 1-8 record. The outfield was to blame, in particular, with Winker, Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, and Scott Schebler all struggling to hit their individual weights. After his first 24 at-bats in those first nine games, Winker had just a single lonely hit for a less-than-optimal .042 batting average.

Since then, however, he’s hit .313/.389/.719 with eight homers and 13 RBI in 19 games. And there are good reasons to believe that Winker is on the verge of breaking out as a legitimate big league star.

You may remember that Winker was part of the Reds’ ill-fated and probably ill-advised outfield rotation last season, with the team pointedly refusing to treat him like a future star among a not-so-distinguished crowd (Adam Duvall, Billy Hamilton, Schebler). Winker did start on Opening Day, but he was later briefly benched by interim manager Jim Riggleman and always seemed to be the fourth option in that rotation. And that was before Winker’s season ended prematurely thanks to shoulder surgery.

Before the surgery, however, he was better than most fans realized. Sure, his surface numbers were good enough (.299/.405/.431, and one of only five hitters in all of baseball with more walks than strikeouts on the season), but the Statcast data led Matt Kelly, an MLB.com analyst, to declare over the winter that Winker “is the best hitter you don’t know about.”

But Winker wasn’t just a high-walk, high-contact hitter last season; his contact had more pop behind it than he had shown at any level before. …

Over the 98 balls that Winker put in play as a rookie in 2017, he made hard contact (i.e. 95-plus mph exit velocities, per Statcast™) 32.7 percent of the time—just a shade under the Major League average of 33.3 percent. By the time his season was cut short in 2018, that hard-hit rate was up to 42.2 percent. Winker also sliced his ground-ball rate by nearly 10 percent, and his 95.4 mph average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives was within MLB’s top 15 percent alongside boppers like Kyle Schwarber, Cody Bellinger and Tommy Pham. Winker, also among the game’s best 10 percent of hitters at making contact, now seems to be maximizing all of those balls in play.

I really don’t want to get too deep into the fancy computer stats, but before your eyes glaze over, I want to mention one more: xwOBA, an “all-encompassing metric” that considers walks, strikeouts, and quality of contact. Last year, as Kelly’s examination revealed, Winker’s xwOBA (.390) was among the top 10 in all of baseball after June 1. Some of the names ahead of Winker on the leaderboard: Yelich, Goldschmidt, Trout, and Betts. Pretty elite company.

So far this season, Winker’s xwOBA is .386, higher than his full-season mark from last year. While that isn’t in the top 10 at the moment, it’s still firmly within the top 15 percent of all big league hitters, even with Winker’s slow start to the season. It’s also the best on the Cincinnati roster by a long shot. (Eugenio Suarez’s .316 is second-best among regulars.)

Perhaps you didn’t need all of those numbers to tell you what your eyes were already noticing: With his shoulder fully healed, Winker has turned into a legit power threat, leading the Reds with eight homers, which is also eighth in the National League. He hits the ball hard to all parts of the field, and his plate discipline is positively Votto-esque, making Winker an ideal choice to hit either at the top of the order or in a position to drive in runs.

And remember, we’re talking about a kid who is only 25, a former first-round draft pick (2012) and a consensus Top 100 prospect in every year prior to his big league debut. If he can stay healthy, Winker is a virtual lock to be one of the future cornerstones of the next good Reds team.

Even better, he just might be the best hitter on the team right now.

Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, Redleg Nation Radio. He wrote about the 1970s Reds as part of the magazine’s “10 Events That Shaped Cincinnati” package. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.

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