Jesse Winker is having a frustrating year. He said as much in his recent interview with Corey Brock of The Athletic.
“This isn’t what I come to the field to perform like,” Winker said. “I want to help the team win. And as of late, I haven’t been.”
It’s nice to see players own up to their struggles in a humanizing fashion, in part because typically solutions begin with recognizing there’s a problem. Last night’s blunder on a ball rolling into the left field that allowed runner to score from first on what would perhaps have been at least a second-and-third situation, or perhaps even first-and-third or first-and-second depending on the defender.
The latter possibilities up there are probably unfair or simply infeasible for Winker. Let’s go frame by frame on the play briefly. First, the ball off the bat following an uncompetitive four-pitch walk from Erik Swanson to open the frame.
The ball is tailing slightly, as it is a liner from a lefty, but there’s the opportunity to get the ball cut off essentially at a straight intersection point from where Winker and where he begins running, a point slightly behind the bullpen plates in the upper left of frame. Winker heading it off there is what the defense seems to expect, as the lefty-shifted group scrambles to receive potential plays at both third and second.
Well crap. We’re much deeper, as Winker has adjusted his angle from his original break. Never fleet of foot, Winker has been slower this year than ever (12th percentile sprint speed, 1st percentile outfielder jump) but again, this has never been a part of his game he’s excelled at. In previous seasons he’s been essentially the same, varying from the 10s to 30s in terms of speed percentile and always among the slowest jumps in baseball.
Oof. Yes Sam Haggerty, Dylan Moore, Taylor Trammell, or even Jarred Kelenic likely cut this ball off around the bullpen plates or at least while the ball is still on grass. They are better defensive players than Winker, whose -9 Outs Above Average (OAA) is tied with Joc Pederson for 5th-worst in MLB among outfielders, ahead of only Nick Castellanos, Juan Soto, Kyle Schwarber, and Andrew Vaughn. His -15 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) are worst of all outfielders (tied with Vaughn), while his Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 innings is a mere -7.2 (82nd out of 99 outfielders with at least 500 innings in the outfield this year). Again, this is not Winker’s bag, so to speak - he’s never been an able fielder, but it is particularly brutal right now. As Winker finally corrals the ball, we can see the runner on first, Jordan Diaz, has made it from just rounding second to about to round third.
The unexpected extra couple seconds it took to snag the ball are consequential not merely for the extra running time, they also force a realignment from the M’s infield which is shifting to attempt a double-cut to home now instead of third. This is not the first time this has happened.
You’ll note in the chart below, sorted by DRS, outfield defense, you’ll notice a few things, including Jarred Kelenic’s harrowing journeys playing center field last year atop the list. OAA, DRS, and UZR measure a player at their position, they do not provide an inherent weight for positional difficulty that is added later to stats like WAR, but the list below is generally populated with the most ill-fated defenders in recent M’s memory. Suffice to say, you don’t want people questioning whether you take pride in your defense.
I would posit, perhaps erroneously, that Winker’s “arm” rating is propped up somewhat by his participation in several relays that featured the mighty-armed J.P. Crawford. This play, for as boondoggled as it had been, was still salvageable if the cutoff throw gets to the M’s shortstop whose arm has remained elite despite flagging range.
Thaaaaaaaat’s Adam Frazier, and Adam Frazier on the run to boot. The man has a lovely, accurate arm for a second baseman but the short-hop throw the Athens, GA native unleashes resembles a Jake Fromm cross-body lawn dart while scrambling. The last possible salvation for this play slips away, as will the game.
So what’s to be done? Coming into the season, it seemed likely that Seattle would heavily feature Winker at DH, the role he occupied predominantly for the 2020 Cincinnati Reds to great success in the only previous season he was afforded the opportunity. Instead, Winker has played in 116 of his 129 games with the M’s in the outfield. A fair bit of that has been through necessity, as the newly 29-year-old is an asset to the lineup even in a career-worst campaign. The M’s have also had multiple stretches of requiring the DH spot for Kyle Lewis, Mitch Haniger, and Ty France, as well as now wanting to get the bats of both France and Carlos Santana in the lineup. Today, that will come with France shifting to third base, but when Eugenio Suárez hopefully returns in a week or so, the M’s stalwart veteran slugger with a broken finger will likely require primarily or exclusively DH reps. Winker either must play the outfield or he cannot play, and so his defense must improve, if only to mitigate mistakes.
For the rest of 2022, it’s a conundrum for the Seattle Mariners to puzzle out or perhaps simply fling at the wall and pray for providence. Winker has always hit far better, yet either from lingering undisclosed injury, fallout from mechanical issues stemming from past injuries, the deadened baseball, dissipated confidence, and/or some combination of it all and more, Winker simply has not produced to expectations. His 105 wRC+ is propped up by a career-high walk rate of 15.3%, an undeniably valuable skill that is frustratingly undercut by his sapped power, which matches his chasmic fall off in hard hit rate and line drive rate. It all points to something injury-related, and yet even this diminished Winker is still a likelier bet for decency and consistency than Kelenic, Lewis, Trammell, or the numerous other intriguing but flawed options Seattle has down the stretch. Winker is under contract for next year, and this winter will be another re-litigation. But for this home stretch, Seattle has to decide if Winker can still turn it around or if he is best as a bench bat, and whether the upside of Kelenic should be let to sink or swim for the final two weeks. I think it’s time to see if Jarred can shine at last.