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Jesse Winker has been both bad and unlucky

Murphy’s Law comes for another Mariners left fielder

Seattle Mariners v. Baltimore Orioles
To his credit, despite how bad this year has been for Jesse Winker, it’s basically impossible to find a photo where he’s not smiling
Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

I was assured that Jesse Winker was a good dude. But hitting a double and a home run last night to step on this article is at the very least discourteous, if not outright malicious. Still, one good night where you hit a home run off a 32-year-old reliever currently striking out a whopping 11% of batters faced won’t fix a whole season. So I think it’s still worth examining what’s gone wrong for Winker.

You are all too aware of this, so I won’t belabor the premise: Jesse Winker used to be an elite hitter, but he has performed very badly this year. Before this year, the worst he’d ever been was 11% better than league average, and just last year, he was the seventh best hitter among those with at least 450 PAs. This year, he’s fallen off a cliff, with career lows in every part of his slash line and a 99 wRC+ that just won’t cut it for a slow left fielder.

The last time we checked in on this, Kate emphasized that Winker had been getting unlucky, focusing on the enormous gap between his expected stats and his actual stats. And that made sense after ten games. But now it’s been 69 (please exercise some self-control). Things have gotten slightly better, but they’ve also stabilized. At this point, it’s unmistakable that some of this is Jesse Winker’s fault rather than the gods’.

Quickly running down the basics of his Savant page, his swing decisions and contact rate remain excellent, but the quality of his contact has deteriorated drastically. His barrel rate has been cut almost in half, at 6.5% after 11.2% last year. His average exit velocity is a pedestrian 87.5, down from 90.6 last year, coinciding with a hard-hit rate down to 32.3% from last year’s 46.8%.

Perhaps most troublingly, he’s hitting the ball in the air way more often, proving that you can indeed get too much of a good thing. His average launch angle is an absurd 17.5 degrees. A high average launch angle paired with a league-average launch-angle tightness has led to him getting under the ball 7% more often than the average player. Popping up on this absolute meatball from Jake Odorizzi has been sadly typical.

All told, Winker has gotten under the ball 58 times this year, and it’s only mid-June. He only did it 70 times in all of last year and 52 times in all of 2019. Worst of all, his average launch angle when going the other way is all the way up to 36 degrees. You can get away with a moon shot to the pull side since you can get more power that way. But do it in the opposite field, and you’re setting yourself up for an automatic out.

One possibility is that his struggle to get the ball over the fence has got him fixated on hitting the ball in the air—in other words he’s pressing, which would help justify Scott Servais’s controversial decision to put him at the top of the lineup for a while, reminding Winker to relax and just get on base. Regardless, these are all quality-of-contact issues, not luck.

Winker’s also had his share of bad luck too. For instance, he’s gone from playing his home games in MLB’s best park for hitters to its worst. Park factors are an index stat like wRC+, meaning 100 is average and each point above or below corresponds with a percentage point greater or less than average. By this metric, Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark has a park factor of 113, higher even than Coors Field, whereas T-Mobile Park is at just 93. Limited to home runs specifically, T-Mobile’s 93 HR park factor isn’t so drastic: 20th out of 30 parks, but GABP is in first place by a mile—158 to second-place Dodger Stadium’s 126.

And yet, here are all of Jesse Winker’s pre-2022 home runs overlaid on T-Mobile Park’s dimensions:

wRC+ is supposed to account for park factors, but as far as wRC+ is concerned, a homer is a homer. So seeing that Winker’s home runs would all have gone out even in a harder park suggests that his past stats actually undersell how good he’s been in the past. But regardless, the move to T-Mobile park alone doesn’t account for his problems.

There’s also the role of the new deadened ball. It was designed to reduce bounciness off the bat. The ball also has additional drag, which wasn’t intended but is definitely happening. And yet, here are all of Jesse Winker’s 2022 singles, doubles, and outs overlaid on GABP’s dimensions (he has no triples):

I count at least nine extra home runs there. Savant agrees, suggesting he’d have 14 homers in Cincinnati, instead of the five he actually has.

Putting all this together, I believe Jesse Winker’s problem is the combination of all these things. The dead ball would be fine if he was still playing in Cincinnati. T-Mobile would be fine if MLB was still using the old ball. He could withstand both changes if his contact quality hadn’t slipped. But everything that can go wrong for Winker has gone wrong. That’s what it takes for a collapse of Winker’s magnitude.

Unfortunately, there’s really only one way for things to improve. As long as he’s a Mariner, he’ll keep playing in T-Mobile, and the physical properties of the ball are up to Rob Manfred’s whims. So it’s up to Winker to start hitting better. His problems aren’t all his fault, but there’s only one thing he can control. Maybe yesterday’s power display is a sign of things to come. Or maybe there’s a simpler secret to his success:

Wren Winker for Traveling Secretary/Chief of Good Vibes, who says no? Not us.