The Cincinnati Reds outfield was always going to be a rotation situation in 2018. Billy Hamilton’s prodigious defense is hard to take out of a lineup, even when he’s going through his prolonged struggles at the plate. All Scott Schebler did in 2017, when healthy, was pound the living hell out of baseballs, and Adam Duvall, despite his recent struggles, is a former All Star who plays his own damn fine defense in left field.
Jesse Winker not only did everything he could do in the minor leagues, but even when he saw time Cincinnati in 2017, he mashed, good for a .298/.375/.529 in 137 PA. Maybe more impressively, he honked 7 wangers for the Big League club, exactly as many as he’d in in his previous two minor league seasons combined. At 24 years-old, there wasn’t really anything left to prove.
So, it was somewhat infuriating to hear on May 30th that Jesse Winker would be benched in favor of Duvall and Schebler, in effect ending the outfield rotation just two months into an otherwise lost season.
At the time, Winker was at the end of a month of May that saw him slash .174/.278/.246, which is certainly not good. But it’s not like Scott Schebler (.200/.303/.329) or Adam Duvall (.188/.286/.425) had really outplayed him over that time period. Hell, Duvall’s season-long numbers at that point (.181/.270/.401) weren’t exactly anything to write home about. And considering Winker will still be five years the junior to Duvall at the end of the season, the whole thing just kinda sucked.
Luckily, Jim Riggleman had a change of heart (or maybe someone above his head changed his heart for him). Jesse Winker started literally the next day and hasn’t been taken out of the conversation since.
There’s a reason for that, of course. Since June 1, Jesse’s been killing fools, slashing .357/.468/.565, mashing six taters and six doubles, while striking out only 19 times to 24 walks in 140 PA.
In doing so, Winker has played himself directly into the middle of the National League Rookie of the Year race. But how does his season stack up to the rest of the Rookies in the National League?
The Case for Jesse Winker
Here’s where Jesse Winker sits in several significant offensive categories.
Jesse Winker NL Rookie rankings, min 100 PA
|Category||Stat||Rank||Leader (Stat, PA)|
|Category||Stat||Rank||Leader (Stat, PA)|
|AVG||.293||3rd||Juan Soto (.301, 209)|
|OBP||.404||2nd||Juan Soto (.411, 209)|
|SLG||.429||8th||Juan Soto (.517, 209)|
|HR||7||6th||Christian Villanueva (19, 294)|
|RBI||42||3rd||Brian Anderson (49, 424)|
|wRC+||128||2nd||Juan Soto (151, 209)|
|BB%||15.1%||2nd||Juan Soto (15.8%, 209)|
|K%||13.8%||1st||Jesse Winker (13.8%, 318)|
The thing that stands out here the most, to me, is the fact that despite not being a “power hitter,” Winker’s not exactly in the bottom of the pack when it comes to the numbers. Villaneuva is by far the outlier when it comes to rookie home run numbers, he’s got nine more than second place (Lewis Brinson), so Winker’s only 3 back of that. The slugging percentage, despite being his worst stat category, still ranks in the top half of rookies (though, admittedly, if I expanded this to ISO, he falls to 13 of 22 players with a minimum of 100 PA).
Still, we’ve seen in his short time in the league that the power numbers can come in surges, as the aforementioned seven home runs in 2017’s 137 plate appearances illustrate. His power isn’t out of this world, but he can certainly get to it when he wants.
Aside from all that, Winker ranks in the top three in very important offensive numbers. The strikeout and walk percentages seem to lend themselves to this not being a fluke, and Winker’s entire body of work suggests that this is, essentially, the offensive player we thought he could be. It’s not like Jesse Winker is going to wake up tomorrow and stop walking or start striking out at an obscene rate.
His BABIP sits at a completely sustainable .329, which seems perfectly fine for a hitter of his caliber. It doesn’t seem like he’s getting extraordinary lucky.
The Case Against Jesse Winker
This boils down to essentially two things: defensive metrics and the existence of Juan Soto.
You already know that Jesse Winker’s defense is considerably less than what you’d consider “good.” It wasn’t ever rated particularly well in the minor leagues, and what we’ve seen on display hasn’t counteracted any of that.
That said, the defensive metrics absolutely hate Jesse Winker’s defense, to the detriment of his WAR.
You may have noticed in that table up there I left off both bWAR and fWAR. And there’s a reason for that; Winker’s defensive metrics absolutely tank his WAR numbers. Of the 22 aforementioned rookies with a minimum of 100 PA, Winker ranks dead last in Fangraphs Def score, at -10.6. Somewhat luckily for Jesse, Juan Soto’s number is similarly terrible (-6.1).
Still, Fangraphs has Winker at worth about 1 WAR. Which, okay. Fine. It ranks sixth on Fangraphs, by the way, but everyone besides the leader (Brian Anderson) has accrued more in less time and opportunities.
Baseball Reference, on the other hand, has Jesse Winker’s player value on defense as the third worst in all of baseball. And, actually, at -2.0 right now, it rates out worse than any of Adam Dunn’s defensive season in Cincinnati.
That, my friends, is patently absurd.
Look, I’m not here to stan for Jesse Winker’s defense. It’s less than good, to be certain. It was worse earlier in the season and, honestly, he probably doesn’t have any business playing right field where the Reds have stuck him all too often. In the short term, you’ll see him starting there even more due to Scott Schebler’s injury, which obviously isn’t optimal. But, do you see anything from Jesse Winker - leftfielder, that’s as bad as Adam Dunn? Can you make any sense of that?
Because of that rating, he has a tiny, abysmal bWAR of -0.2. Think about all of the things I’ve demonstrated for a second, and then imagine a guy that’s worth negative WAR, simply because of his defense? Dude would have to be tripping over his own damn feet, no?
It’s completely silly.
Let’s get to Juan Soto
He’s really very good (he also ranks in the bottom 15 on Baseball Reference’s dWAR, but still manages a 0.8 bWAR so yeah, crazytown). But part of what makes him Jesse Winker’s biggest rival is that he’s only 19 years-old and, as of now, is doing a lot of the things that Jesse Winker does best, better.
Soto has less than 100 PA as Winker, but he bests him by a little or by a lot in many of the categories save for K%, where he still strikes out less than 20% of the time.
On a pure voting level, though, Winker could edge Soto in several categories, but the idea of a 19 year-old dude finishing even 2nd across the board, for a team in Washington nonetheless, is still going to sway voters. Guys don’t come into the league at 19 and have success. A 25 year-old edging him out for what could be a last place team won’t move the needle.
What about this Brian Anderson guy?
Yes, he’s a thing, and he’s mainly the everyday right fielder for the Miami Marlins. He’s the leader in the clubhouse in fWAR with 2.6 among rookies, despite being worse than Winker in nearly every tangible way. He’s received just over 100 more PA than Winker, though, and defensive metrics are kind to him (I can’t judge, I’ve never in my life watched him play).
Still, he plays for the Marlins and while Rookie of the Year isn’t weighted nearly as heavily for good teams as the MVP award might be, it probably still helps not to play for the Marlins in their current state.
Yo, Rookie Pitchers are things, too!
They certainly are! Hell, even Winker’s teammate Tyler Mahle has laid the ground work for a run at NL Rookie of the Year. But aside from him, what Walker Buehler’s done in 50+ IP, and Seranthony Dominguez’s bad ass awesome name and relief pitching, I really can’t make heads or tails of that particular race. Maybe we’ll dive into it later.
If the race ended right now, it’s Juan Soto. But, as mentioned, 19 year-olds are, well, fickle, and I don’t think I see Jesse Winker slowing down at all. Brian Anderson probably won’t either, and eventually I think Winker’s bad defensive metrics prevent him from winning it all, unless he posts an absurd rate stat. If he ends up having the most RBI (and considering the guys in front of him, it’s not impossible) and also the highest OBP, plus finishing second in PA, he has a chance. Especially if the Reds keep winning.
I think Winker finishes 2nd, either because Soto keeps going nutty, or because Brian Anderson ends up with a 5 WAR season.
Or, maybe, Tyler Mahle beats them all out.