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The pitch demolishing Jesse Winker’s walk rate

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The young hitter’s once-advanced approach has deteriorated greatly in 2019, and a single pitch may be to blame

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Chicago Cubs Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports

For years, we mostly knew who Jesse Winker was, and who he was not. He was someone who could hit for high average, draw lots of walks, and keep strikeouts low. He was not someone who was going to run very fast, or play particularly great outfield defense. He might hit for power, but also, he might not. It was okay if he didn’t hit for power, though, because look at that sweet batting average and walk rate, baby. He hit .298 over his minor league career with a .398 on-base percentage, all while being younger than his competition. Anyone who gets on base with that kind of frequency is going to be a valuable everyday major leaguer, and Winker had been doing it since his first day of pro ball. He continued to do it after he was called to the big leagues, too. He posted a .375 OBP and 10.9 percent walk rate in 137 plate appearances after getting called up for the first time in 2017, and followed that with a .405 OBP and 14.7 percent walk rate in 334 plate appearances in 2018 before suffering a shoulder injury. We were right about who Winker was all along. Good for us.

In 2019, however, Winker has changed in a major way. His batting average is just .230, and his OBP is .307. That once-dreamy walk rate of his is down to just 8.4 percent, by far the lowest of his career. He’s combining that with a 17.3 percent strikeout rate, the highest he’s had at any level since 2014. He is hitting for power now, already setting a career high with 10 homers in just 48 games. But that power hasn’t been enough to make up for his loss in contact and walks, with his 96 wRC+ sitting 32 points lower than it did in 2018. Winker is far from the only Reds hitter to get out to a slow start this season, but he is one of only a couple (Joey Votto being the other) whose entire hitting profiles have seemed to change overnight.

While the power numbers Winker has shown this season (.224 ISO, .472 xSLG) have been encouraging, his batting average and, much more importantly, his walk rate, have been real problems. Solving the question of his lower batting average is relatively straightforward — he’s recorded just a .225 BABIP in 2019, well below his career mark of .302 and an even steeper departure from his .336 BABIP from 2018. Luck isn’t the only culprit, as BABIP can have as just as much to do with the kind of contact a hitter is making. But it seems fair to imagine that a number that low means a few good bounces might lay ahead.

Finding an explanation for his lower walk rate is trickier. We know he’s being more aggressive than ever, with his 26.1 percent chase rate, 69.3 percent zone swing rate, and 45.6 percent overall swing rate all representing career highs, according to FanGraphs. Each of those are at least 4 percent increases over the 2018 season, so they aren’t small jumps, either. But it also isn’t enough of a jump to take him from one end of the spectrum to the other; he ranks 97th among 169 qualified hitters in swing rate this year, after ranking 241st out of 278 hitters who made 300 plate appearances in 2018. That takes him from the 87th percentile to the 57th — a big leap, to be sure, but still keeping him among the more patient half of hitters in the majors. Still, simply outlining his plate discipline numbers doesn’t feel satisfying enough to understand the season Winker is having. It shows us a little bit about how his numbers have metabolized in this way, but not a lot about why.

Given the information I’ve presented, your instinct might be to assume that the gain in power coincides with the drop in walks and average. If he’s swinging for power, that could mean he’s selling out on pitches more, hoping that uptick in slugging will offset anything he sacrifices in other departments. Even in 2019, of course, it’s sexier to be a home run hitter than a master of the strike zone. If Winker must decide between being someone who walks 13 percent of the time and someone who hits 25 homers a season, it’s not hard to see why he might choose the latter.

The thing is, it isn’t clear that he needs to choose. Here are Winker’s rolling 15 game averages showing the relationship between his walk rate and his isolated power number over the course of his major league career, courtesy of FanGraphs:

There are certainly points where one statistic drops precipitously while the other experiences a peak. Toward the end of the 2017 season, Winker began hitting for more power and walking less at about the same time. Near the beginning of 2018, the opposite was true. By the middle of 2018, though, something interesting begins to happen: His power and walk rates begin to ascend and descend in near unison. His largest power spike of the 2018 season — just after the 120-game mark on the x-axis — happens at roughly an identical time as his largest walk rate of the season. After another large separation a few weeks into 2019, the two have begun to mirror each other again. If there is a definitive correlation between Winker hitting for power and Winker not walking as often, this chart doesn’t show it.

If we can’t be certain about blaming his deteriorating plate discipline on a desire to hit for more power, then maybe it’s time to think about how pitchers might be attacking him relative to past seasons. There, however, we come up empty too. Here is Statcast’s portrait of the pitch selection Winker has been exposed to over his three seasons in the big leagues:

There’s a bit of a decline in fastball usage and about the same rise in changeups, but only by a few points. If we fuss over a few percentage points in this kind of data, we’re going to be here all night. No, right now, we’re still looking for big changes. Let’s check his swing rates against those individual pitches.

Hoooooo boy, now we’re getting somewhere. Winker’s swinging a little more at fastballs and breaking balls, but the clear jump we see is a rise in hacks at the changeup. He’s gone from a 44.5 percent swing rate and offspeed pitches to a 59.1 percent swing rate. That is a legitimate jump, and one we see represented in other pieces of data, the most important of which is his chase rate.

If you’re looking to find missing walks where a player once achieved them, it’s probably a good idea to learn which pitches he is chasing more often than he used to. In 2018, Winker chased offspeed pitches (changeups, splitters, and screwballs) 23.2 percent of the time. In 2019, he’s doing so 46.4 percent of the time. If someone is literally doubling the rate at which he chases a certain pitch out of the strike zone, that is going to have severe consequences.

When looking at Winker’s splits this season, this makes a lot of sense. He hasn’t had the opportunity to face many left-handed pitchers this season, recording just 27 plate appearances against them over 18 games, so they really haven’t had a chance to affect his numbers much. Even if they did, you likely wouldn’t see much of a change. He’s batting .148/.233/.148 against lefties this season with three walks and two strikeouts. From a plate discipline perspective, that doesn’t look far off from his .211/.357/.333 line against them in 71 PAs in 2018, with 12 walks and 14 strikeouts. It is against right-handers where Winker has experienced such a drastic decline — last year, he hit .321/.418/.455 against righties with 37 walks and 32 strikeouts. This season: .246/.332/.515, 12 walks, 29 strikeouts. The way right-handers try to get left-handed hitters like Winker out is by throwing offspeed pitches low and away. Winker could avoid that trap last season, but has had trouble doing the same so far this year. Take a look at his raw pitch percentages from 2018 to 2019, looking only at right-handed pitchers. (Data courtesy of brooksbaseball.net).

Again, it really doesn’t appear that pitchers have changed their strategy much. Now, here are the same graphics, but with his swing percentages.

Right where you expect them to be, there are the big jumps in chases below the knees. In 2018, Winker had the kind of heat map you’d expect from someone like Votto — a big patch of red in the center, where the strike zone is, and a whole lot of light and dark blues outside the edge. Now, we’re seeing more purples and even some red below the zone, which just happens to be where Winker is going to see the most offspeed stuff.

Now, it feels important to remind you here that Winker is not simply exchanging walks for strikeouts this season. While his walk rate is down 6.3 percent from 2018, his strikeout rate is up just 3.5 percent. The fact that the two are moving in decisively opposite directions is absolutely concerning, and his strikeouts certainly play a role in his loss of walks. But with his swinging strike rate increasing by just 1 percent from last season, whiffs really don’t seem to be much of a factor in this. In fact, Winker might stand to benefit from missing on more of his swings when he goes hunting for offspeed pitches, because his whiff rate on changeups outside the zone is actually down 14 percent from last season. That means that not only is he chasing these pitches below the knees much more often, he’s also putting them in play more often, resulting in more at-bats ending on weak contact that may have otherwise led to a free pass.

It might seem silly to spend so much time discussing a batter’s struggles against a single pitch that still only accounts for about 18 percent of the offerings he sees day to day, but the effects of those struggles have been staggering. According to Statcast, Winker hit .256 against offspeed pitches in 2018, with a .349 slugging percentage. Those aren’t bad numbers against changeups, and the expected stats were even better — a .272 xBA, a .450 xSLG, and a terrific .353 xwOBA. This year, those numbers have tanked. He’s hitting .194 against offspeed pitches, with just a .258 slugging percentage. His xBA is .206, his xSLG is .247, and his xwOBA is .201. Here’s what that kind of dip looks like in comparison to the other pitches he’s seeing:

Time after time, offspeed pitches are what stand out in Winker’s data. And possibly the most bizarre part of all of this is that he isn’t alone on this team in his struggles against this specific kind of pitch. According to FanGraphs’ pitch weights, which show how many runs better or worse than league average a batter has produced against any given pitch, Winker is one of four qualified Reds hitters who find themselves in the bottom 24 hitters in the league against changeups. His -2.9 wCH value places him just ahead of Votto (-3.3 wCH), and just behind Yasiel Puig (-2.4 wCH) and Eugenio Suarez (-2.0 wCH). Even stranger: Last year, all four of those hitters graded out above average against changeups, with Suarez and Puig actually finishing among the top 32 hitters in the league against that pitch. Across all of Major League Baseball, only the Giants, Royals and Marlins have performed worse against changeups as a team than the Reds have in 2019.

Cincinnati has a changeup problem, and it’s gotten its hands on every one of the most important hitters in the team’s lineup. For Suarez, it helped cause him to start the season a little slower than usual. For Puig, it helped cause him to start the season much slower than usual. When it comes to Winker, though, it seems to be unraveling everything we thought we knew about him throughout his professional career. And with the Reds facing a pending decision about their high profile free-agent-to-be right fielder, a long list of talented hitters rapidly ascending through the minors, Winker’s ability to adjust to his newfound nemesis may affect his place in the organization for years to come.