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Updating the Top 100: Jesse Winker

Syndication: Cincinnati Sam Greene/The Enquirer via Imagn Content Services, LLC

If someone were to ask you which Cincinnati Reds player do you wish you could have seen play a full season instead of the partial 60-game season, there are only two acceptable answers.

The first correct answer is Trevor Bauer, who was on pace for the most dominant season by a Reds starting pitcher since Jose Rijo in 1993. How little was Bauer pacing himself in 2020 is a legitimate question and it would have been fascinating to watch a full 6-month run out of Bauer.

The other possible answer is Jesse Winker, who provided one of the most wildly schizophrenic seasons in recent Reds memory.

There were three distinct episodes to the Winker 2020 season. Act I was titled, “Jesse Winker is a part-time player; I wonder if he’ll ever start to hit”. Winker appeared in all of the team’s first twelve games, but he only played the entire game once out of those 12. He was otherwise lifted for a pinch-runner, or a defensive substitute, or entered the game late as a pinch-hitter, or was pinch-hit for vs. a left-handed pitcher. Through those 12 games, he had just four hits, all singles. His OPS at the close of August 5 was 457, and that was up a dramatic 80 points after reaching base three times over the preceding two games. It was pretty bad.

Act II was titled, “Watch me own August”. In the final 23 games of the month, Winker hit .397/.482/.890. Vintage Bonds for 3+ weeks. 6 doubles and 10 dingers after being oh-fer on both counts prior to that stretch. He was playing full games, alternating between DH and LF, and left very little question as to who the best player on the team was, non-Bauer division.

Always beware the third Act, however. This one, titled “Not so fast, Winker”, left audiences weeping in their seats. Winker managed just five hits over the final month of the season.

Calendar months provide inarticulate season splits, since they are rather arbitrary vis-à-vis an individual player’s rise and fall, but in this case, we can tell a remarkable story about Winker:

Jesse Winker by month

August 98 84 31 6 0 10 12 23 1257
Not August 85 65 7 1 0 3 16 23 522

With the Reds qualifying for the postseason in 2020, that meant playoff preview write-ups, which meant a run of writers previewing the Reds who weren’t all that familiar with the team. That’s no sleight. I certainly hadn’t examined the Braves in any detail prior to their being locked in as an opponent. The point is that you read something differently when you are well versed in the subject as opposed to being a novice. And so: the standard Reds v. Braves preview noted Jesse Winker as the team’s best hitter. But how do you reconcile the fact that Winker had the team’s best rate stats by a country mile and also hit .104 in the final month of a two-month season?

And so, back to the original question, who the heck is Jesse Winker anyways? I’m not a good enough data scientist to give a precise answer to why September looked the way it did; From a cursory glance it looks like pitchers were more prone to attack Winker away after September 1. It wasn’t that long ago that Winker’s best swing resulted in a home run to left center field. In fact, something like 80% of Winker’s homers in 2019 came to the opposite field. In 2020, he became far more of a pull hitter. My guess is that this shift worked really well until scouting reports caught up, at which it worked really, really poorly.

2021 becomes a crossroads season. Can Winker adjust? If so, we should probably be really excited about an established hitter entering his age-27 season. If not, you should grow accustomed to the art of pulling your own hair out.

One more note of paradox. Winker has always been a below average fielder. In 2020, he logged positive statistical value in the field for the first time in his career. At the same time, he appeared as the team’s designated hitter far more frequently than any other player, to the point where he ranked only 6th on the team in innings played in the outfield this year. Did he truly improve? Again, we probably didn’t see enough in 95 innings to conclude either way, but it’s another weird split.

You may or may not find it interesting that Winker will go down in history as the Reds’ first regular designated hitter. It is, of course, to be determined if that becomes a one-time blip or the first mile marker on a much longer road.

Over four seasons with the Reds, Jesse Winker has hit .280/.380/.479 (123 OPS+). He has appeared in 303 games and has 47 doubles, 42 HR, and 119 RBI. He debuts on the Reds all-time list at #223.