It is forgivable if you’ve somewhat forgotten about Jesse Winker at this point. The last year and a half alone have seen the Cincinnati Reds outfield experience the hyped call-up of Nick Senzel, the blistering emergence of Aristides Aquino, and the big money additions of both Nick Castellanos and Shogo Akiyama, an imposing foursome most clubs would be content with rolling out as their regular rotation. This, of course, has coincided with repeated injuries hitting the cancel button on Winker’s seasons.
Pair that with the thumpers the Reds have compiled in their infield and add-in the star caliber in their starting rotation, and Winker might well be the 12th or 16th Red that would pop into the mind of casual fans. Fair enough on star power, I suppose, but a slightly deeper dive suggests Winker might well be incredibly well suited to cement himself as a long-time big leaguer this season, one who could well end up the offensive linchpin on what should be a very, very good Reds club.
To date, it’s been injuries, not underperformance at the plate, that have undermined Winker’s rep. Over his three abbreviated MLB seasons, he’s the owner of rock solid .285/.379/.466 line in 855 PA, good for a 120 OPS+. That production has been good to the tune of a .362 wOBA and 122 wRC+, as well, marks clearly indicating that he’s tremendously above average offensively. For context, that .362 wOBA ranks 46th among the 277 MLB players who have picked up at least 850 PA over the last three seasons. That’s tied with Xander Bogaerts, .001 behind Joey Gallo, and ahead of the likes of Francisco Lindor, Edwin Encarnacion, Michael Brantley, Gleyber Torres, both Matts of Oakland, and one Nick Castellanos.
His limitations are, of course, rather obvious. There is a very succint reason as to why 855 PA of offensive excellence like that have netted only 1.1 career bWAR (2.3 career fWAR), and that’s because he’s a bit of a lumberer. Said lumbering on the basepaths and in the outfield have consistently wiped away huge swaths of his overall value, the grades on the latter honestly drawing into question whether he should actually be out there in the first place.
The thing about that is...
Castellanos is hardly a defender on whose shoulders you’d like to depend, but he’s got three things going for him in particular - a lengthy track record of overall performance, a big money contract that fans will want to see on display everyday, and the ability to hit well regardless of which side of the mound the pitches are being hurled at him. Defensive limitations aside, it’s at least passable if manager David Bell chooses to go with Castellanos as an everyday corner outfielder for those reasons alone, as it would give him just a little bit more lineup stability day in, day out.
While Castellanos has shown himself to be above-average against RHP while completely obliterating LHP in recent seasons, platoon problems are one thing Winker has not been able to overcome. He’s a career .176/.295/.248 hitter against southpaws, and that paired with the perfect platoon partner in Phil Ervin means there’s almost zero scenario where Winker should be in the batter’s box against a lefty, especially given Bell’s newfound expanded bench in 2020.
But while that knock against Winker is an unenviable blemish, allow me to return to that .362 overall wOBA, a number that is that impressive while having those awful appearances against LHP baked in. The math-half of your brain should have a few synapses firing right now, sending a message saying plainly whoa, that means he’s been an absolute freakin’ monster against RHP in that time.
He has been. Of the 267 MLB players who have at least 650 PA against RHP since Winker came into the league, his 137 wRC+ against them ranks 21st. That is better - yes, better - than Mookie Betts (136) and Josh Donaldson (134), while directly behind Michael Brantley (138), Alex Bregman (139), and Bryce Harper (140) on the pecking order.
If you’re not privy to the dearth of effective left-handed pitchers in baseball, I’ll let MLB.com’s Mike Petriello fill you in. If you’re not into clicking links and reading other articles, I’ll let you know that’s a study that showed that 2019 saw the fewest 3 WAR seasons by LHP of any non strike-shortened season in MLB history. And while this year’s modified schedule will still see the Reds likely face Jon Lester and perhaps Dallas Keuchel, it’s also quite likely that each of the Twins, Cardinals, and Cleveland end up sporting 5 man rotations of all RHPs.
Even if the scheduling quirks have the Reds catching Danny Duffy or Gio Gonzalez among their midwest rivals this year, it wouldn’t be at all odd to see the Reds end up slated to face ~45, or more, right-handed starters in this shortened season, all with a lineup that will feature a Designated Hitter. That could be, and should be, one Jesse Winker, who should get a chance to specialize in a big, big way on the one particular thing he does incredibly well. Even the one biggest knock on him - staying healthy over the grind of a 162 game marathon - aren’t up against him in this shortened season, where he and the best overall Reds roster in year look primed to win enough games to make this a memorable year.
We see you, Jesse.