The 2015 season could probably have gotten off to a worse start for Reds top position prospect Jesse Winker, but it certainly could have gone better. Over the first two months of the season, the outfielder hit .229/.343/.314 in 181 plate appearances for the Pensacola Blue Wahoos. He walked 24 times in that span and only had 27 strikeouts, but his power was way down and the ball simply wasn’t finding the outfield grass often.
On May 15th I looked back at his struggles in Pensacola for subscribers at my site (and if you aren’t subscribing over there, think about it – it helps support all that I do) and found that his groundball rate was through the roof. At that point in the season, his groundball rate was sitting at 64%, which represented a 45% increase in his rate of grounders from the year before.
Groundballs don’t go for extra-base hits all that often, so that certainly explained where the power had gone for the 21-year-old. His line drive rate was in line with past seasons and he was hitting fewer infield flies, though that was never really an issue. He simply had been trading fly balls for grounders in the early part of the year.
Things have changed ever since the calendar flipped to June. His groundball rate has been 40% since that point in time, which is right in line with where he has been for the rest of his career and the results have been exactly what everyone seemed to expect from him coming into the year. In the 284 plate appearances Winker has had since June began, he has hit .299/.391/.496 with 13 doubles, a triple and 11 home runs. And he’s done that while playing in a home ballpark that crushes power to right and right-center.
I had a chance to talk to him about his early struggles while I was in Pensacola earlier this month.
I’ve learned a lot. It was an interesting start to my year, but you know I’ve had so many learning experiences and I’ve taken so much from this one year that honestly I feel like it’s been my best year as a player.
I also asked him about the adjustment, if there was any between what was happening with the things in April and May and since, given the big difference in the rate of groundballs that he had early on.
It kind of just happened (the change in batted ball profile when June began). I’d be hitting 3-4 groundouts to second or short every game and I was like ‘what the heck is going on?’, but baseball is a game of a half inch, and that’s all it really was. I wasn’t really getting frustrated with it. I knew it would turn around. Some of it just had to do with pitch selection, as simple as going up and picking a different pitch and getting something to drive. And that’s what I did. It’s a game of ups-and-downs and you try to stay even keel. I knew it would change, it was just a matter of time. Starting off a little slow and coming out of it, as a player it shows you can do that. Next time you’re in a slump you are like ‘alright, I’ve been through three of these, I’m fine’. It’s one of those things I learned from and I learned how to get out of a slow start and how to get out of it, so it was good for me.
It was good for him. While we (at least I know that I do) question some of the things that announcers will say on the air, we often hear the former players that are now announcing often talk about how it’s good for a player to struggle at some point in their career before they reach the Major Leagues and to learn how to work through it. Prior to the early part of this season, Jesse Winker hadn’t really had any prolonged periods of struggle in his career.
Now he has and he’s exploded through the wall like the Kool-Aid man and hasn’t looked back. In August he’s hitting .348/.430/.652 with six home runs in just 19 games. If you only look at his season line, you can see a good, but unspectacular stat line, but when you look at how he’s performed for the last three months you can see that stat line of a guy who looks every bit of the organizations top position prospect and maybe a guy who could be knocking on the door of a big league job very soon. When you watch him hit, you get the same feeling.
Here’s some video of Winker at the plate that I shot while down in Pensacola, including a nice opposite field home run that started a streak of five home runs in five games.