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Looking into Jesse Winker’s unlucky start

The numbers say things will improve for Seattle’s new acquisition

Houston Astros v Seattle Mariners
Calling all luck dragons to please report to Jesse Winker’s shoulders
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

When the Mariners acquired Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suárez this off-season from the Reds, the sense was that Winker was the prize and Suárez, a necessary bit of salary-eating in order to secure the services of the 28-year-old Winker. Flash forward to the second week of the season, and Winker is rocking a wRC+ of 78 to Suárez’s 116, with the latter already chalking up his first two home runs in a Mariner uniform as well as three doubles, for a cool .455 slugging percentage. As for Winker’s slugging percentage, it remains stuck at an anemic .152, or literally four hundred points lower than he posted last year. His ISO sits at a grand goose egg. Things will obviously get better, and the good news for Winker is that even as the results aren’t showing in the box scores, they are being picked up by the underlying machinery of advanced statistics.

In case his BABIP of .179 didn’t clue you in, per Statcast, Jesse Winker is currently the 16th unluckiest hitter in baseball by wOBA vs. xwOBA, with a wOBA of just .268 vs. his expected mark of .408, which would locate him in the 80th percentile in baseball, or among the top 50 hitters. If you just look at slugging, however, Winker becomes the tenth unluckiest hitter in the game, with a difference of -.336 between his current and expected mark of .488. The other names on the no-bombs-squad list include Luis Robert (-.377), Kyle Tucker (-.417), and Joey Gallo (-.474), which isn’t the worst company to be keeping, even if it’s hard out here for a slugger.

Somehow, though, Winker is still posting an OBP of .349, pure J.P. Crawford territory, thanks to his team-leading 10 walks. Winker has always been able to take a walk, posting a double-digit walk rate every year he’s been in the bigs, but in this piece of small sample size theatre he’s walking a hilarious 23% of the time, good for fourth in all of baseball.

Probably, you aren’t worried about Winker, because you saw this:

Or this:

But if you like worrying for some reason, here’s something you can worry about: while we’ve seen Winker putting a charge into a ball, his hardest-hit ball so far (106.7) is still several ticks lower than his max of previous years (113-114), and his average exit velocity is down to just 87 MPH vs the 90+ it’s previously averaged. He’s still above league-average in finding barrels, but not yet to his previous form, and his hard-hit rate of barely over 20% is one of the lowest in the league. But this is probably all just early season cold-weather noise.

Something a little more concerning regarding those xwOBA numbers up above might be this 2020 piece of research by Alex Chamberlain that attempts to account for spray angle in xwOBAcon numbers (the “con” part there just means “on contact”, so it excludes walks and HBP); Chamberlain’s research found that Winker’s xwOBAcon numbers in 2019 were some of the most deflated by introducing spray angle data; Winker fell from an xwOBAcon of .384 to a much more pedestrian .359. That might be related to Winker’s career-low average launch angle of 7.2 degrees in 2019; happily, in 2020, he raised his average launch angle to a more pleasant 10.5 degrees and saw his wOBA and xWOBA line up almost perfectly at .396/.397, an elite mark then and one he was able to even further improve upon in 2021, with a similar average LA (Winker’s current average launch angle is a distressing 27 degrees, something we’ll assume is inflated by the Mariners’ strategy of “hit popups into the wind” during that game in Chicago).

So there are a couple things you can watch for to track Winker’s progress, other than “not having to face the best defensive outfielders the league has to offer”: to see that launch angle flatten out some without dipping to 2019 levels, to see if the hard hits return. However, if there’s a bright side here other than knowing there’s no way this catastrophically unlucky streak can continue, it’s that a slow start isn’t foreign territory for Winker:

Here’s to seeing that mashing soon at T-Mobile Park, which if you haven’t heard, conveniently comes equipped with a roof. In the meantime, every heads-up penny or stray eyelash I find or 11:11 I spot on the clock goes straight to the Jesse Winker Fund.