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40 in 25: Jesse Winker

Wink me up before you go go

Syndication: The Enquirer Albert Cesare / The Enquirer via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Yesterday, I wrote about Eugenio Suárez, who the Mariners are set to deploy every day at third base to replace Kyle Seager. That ought to help stabilize the Mariners roster whether Suárez has himself a resurgence or not, and it alleviates some of the pressure that was about to be placed on the shoulders of Abraham Toro, who is now free to move around and play several positions. Even more helpful, though, is that Jesse Winker is equipped to be the linchpin in the Mariners’ lineup and immediately slots in as, arguably, their best hitter.

Winker just secured his first All-Star appearance in 2021, and yet, he seems awfully underrated. Here are his overall numbers since 2017:

Jesse Winker, Career Numbers

Winker 12.0 16.5 .372 132 6.9
extremely nice WAR

Winker has the look of one of the best hitters in MLB, and, by wRC+, that’s what he’s been! His 132 wRC+ ranks 29th in MLB since 2017, sandwiched in between Josh Donaldson and Joey Votto, who are also known for their hitting savvy. If you prefer xwOBA, Winker’s .372 xwOBA puts him 31st in MLB in the same time frame — that slots him into the 93rd percentile — right behind Pete Alonso.

But we’re missing necessary context! Consider how the Mariners are planning to use him:

Winker is one of the best left-handed platoon bats in baseball — and he’s on the strong-side of the platoon — but he’s a platoon bat nonetheless. If I had a dollar for every time the Mariners said they thought a left-handed hitter could hit lefties and then went on to not, I would have, I don’t know, a lot of dollars. So many dollars! The Mariners’ optimism previously would have gotten me excited about Winker’s ability to play every day, but I’ve seen them try and fail so many times — too many times! We should set something of a conservative expectation for Winker: a platoon bat, but a damn good one.

Here are his career splits, versus lefties and righties, respectively:

Jesse Winker, Platoon Splits

vs LHP 306 .276 .318 65
vs RHP 1217 .405 .385 149
Credit: FanGraphs and Baseball Savant

The information within the table is quite simple, but the way to interpret it is much lesser so. To put it simply, Winker has posted a .276 wOBA and 65 wRC+ against lefties over 306 plate appearances — that’s quite bad! But also, Winker has also put up a .405 wOBA and 149 wRC+ against righties over 1217 plate appearances, which is really good! Winker has hit 49 percent above league-average against righties, while also hitting 35 percent below league-average against lefties. Very good against righties, very bad against lefties. Sounds about right, not much to see here.

Except there is! What is new is that there’s information in the table that helps us understand what’s made Winker into the hitter that he is today. You’ll see that he overperforms his xwOBA against righties by 20 points, while underperforming his xwOBA against lefties by 44 points — 44 points! That’s quite a lot, and there’s a reason for that — one that is quite dissimilar from Suárez’s batted ball profile.

Alex Chamberlain of FanGraphs compared Statcast’s hard-hit percentage to his iteration of dynamic hard-hit percentage that’s hard-hit threshold changes by launch angle. The original work was done by Connor Kurcon, but Chamberlain folded in spray angle, or the horizontal angle in which a bat is hit. Hard-hit percentage undersells Suárez’s ability to hit the ball hard: while his hard-hit percentage ranked in the 22nd percentile at the time of writing, he improves to the 46th percentile in terms of dynamic hard-hit percentage (with spray angle). That suggests that he has a lot of power hiding underneath his approach, and it probably means that he’s not back to 100% health, either.

For Winker, he’s on the other end of the spectrum. His hard-hit percentage is one of the best in the sample, slotting him into the 87th percentile, but when you consider his dynamic hard-hit percentage, he to the 50th percentile. That’s one of the steepest drops in the table, with only six players falling more significantly. That means that his hard-hit percentile overstates how much raw power he actually has, whereas in actuality he’s more middle of the road. And while that may seem troubling, it’s not! That just means that Winker created more synthetic power by emphasizing more pull-side power, where it’s easier to hit the ball hard.

In other words: Winker doesn’t actually possess more power than other hitters, but does that really matter when his approach yields outcomes similar to that of a player with plus raw power? I don’t think so!

See for yourself:

And so, in looking over his splits, it’s evident that, against righties, he’s getting a lot of bang for his buck because he hits the ball hard to his pull-side. Against lefties, though, he underperforms his numbers significantly, which has to do with his hit tendencies. More than most left-handed hitters, Winker hits the ball on the ground an awful lot against left-handed pitchers, at 52.8 percent. Ground balls are already not favorable outcomes, but for a player who gets shifted more than half the time and isn’t exactly fleet of foot, they’ve turned into even poorer outcomes than they would otherwise. That helps explain the disparity in his actual and expected outcomes, with the rest being explained by his penchant for hitting fly balls and line drives to the opposite field.

Maybe the Mariners have a plan for Winker hitting against left-handed pitching, one in which almost certainly involves lifting the ball in the air more. Perhaps they’re full of shit and are simply posturing to set themselves up to acquire Kris Bryant or Trevor Story. Probably not. Who knows? I don’t know! Whatever the case, the Mariners have just acquired an elite hitter against right-handed pitching, and paired with Suárez — who hit 49 home runs two years ago — this offense just got a whole lot better.