Jesse Winker had a strange April at the plate. The Cincinnati Reds outfielder came into May with eight home runs — that’s already a career high — and a frustratingly-low .200 BABIP. As a result, his slash line is a far cry from what it was over his first two big-league seasons. A .299/.397/.460 hitter coming into the current campaign, Winker is slashing a more-akin-to-slugger .228/.311/.511.
What kind of numbers can we expect going forward? At age 25, with 574 big-league plate appearances under his belt, Winker profiles as a player well capable of merging the best of both worlds — on-base excellence and pop. That’s exactly what he’s looking to do. The sweet-swinging native of Orlando doesn’t want to be boxed in as a hitter. He wants to do everything.
Winker discussed his multi-dimensional approach when the Reds visited PNC Park in early April.
David Laurila: How have you evolved as a hitter? I’m thinking of both your approach, and your bat path.
Jesse Winker: “I use the ball to tell me where my bat path is at. The ball gives me the best feedback I need for that. What’s changed the most for me is the knowledge I’ve gained about opposing pitchers. That, and what I’m trying to feel at the plate. I’m more aware of how I’m feeling in the box, and what I’m trying to do.”
Laurila: What do you mean by ‘what I’m trying to feel at the plate’?
Winker: “Things with my posture. I like to feel weight in certain parts of my back leg, and I want my posture to be more upright in the box. I have a bit of a natural hunch, and [correcting that] puts me in a stronger position. It allows me to stay inside, and quick through the ball.
“I’ve focused a lot on being strong on my back leg. It’s a huge key for me. It pretty much drives your swing. Your back leg is like your engine. At the same time, I like to make sure it’s under control. I don’t want to go too far onto my leg to where it’s counterproductive.”
Laurila: How do you go about getting onto your back leg?
Winker: “It’s a feel thing, and I think everybody is different. Nolan Arenado does that little step back, but I kind of just like to feel it going down — but on the inside of my back knee. I like to feel my weight there. I don’t like it to … I like to think of it as keeping my back knee inside of my foot when I’m loading. I don’t want my knee to go outside of my foot.”
Laurila: Is that something new?
Winker: “I feel like I’ve always kind of done it — there are picture of me in the low minor leagues doing it — but now I’m more thinking about it, and trying to do it every time. Not during the game, but rather when I’m doing my work. I want to make sure I’m feeling what I want to feel.”
Laurila: What is your timing mechanism?
Winker: “I waggle my hands, and I’m kind of rocking in the box. You’re timing the pitcher, so … I have a lot of momentum, and like to be loose, so it’s whatever my body is going to do when it’s loose. The rocking. I like to be comfortable. Whatever I’ve got that day, it’s being comfortable in the moment. I like to think of hitting as having a bunch of different clubs. Similar to a golfer. You can’t use your driver every single day. Right?”
Laurila: The idea of an ‘A swing’ came up in a spring conversation I had with Arenado. Can a hitter have multiple A swings, or is more of an A, a B, and a C?
Winker: “I think a hitter can have multiple A swings. You get in a groove where … personally, it’s one of those things where I go through stretches where everything I hit, I feel I can hit in the air, with force. Then there are times where the best swing I have that day is a line drive to left field. Maybe that’s a B swing, as opposed to a second A swing? I guess it depends on how you look at it.”
Laurila: Are you looking for pitches in a particular area of the plate?
Winker: “I like to hunt my zone. Every time. I want to hunt what I want to hunt. I think it’s too hard to cover the whole plate. These guys throw too hard, and their balls move too late, so you need to know your zone, and where you can do the most damage. And you also have to know the pitchers. If you know a guy isn’t going to throw you anything inside, what’s the point of looking inside?”
Laurila: A lot of hitters sit fastball, and adjust from there.
Winker: “For the most part, I always want to be on the fastball. There have been plenty of times I was looking for a fastball in a certain spot, and it wasn’t there, and I was still able to drive the ball wherever. So that’s the starter for me, just being on the heater — but not having to cheat to get to the heater. I want to be on time, in control, and able to drive the fastball. For me, everything goes off that. I trust my reactions. I trust my eyes.”
Laurila: In a perfect world, would you always know which pitch is coming?
Winker: “I think I’d want to know which pitch is coming if the guy had a high probability of throwing that pitch for a ball. Does that make sense? If I knew it was going to be a splitter, and 70% of the time that was going to be a ball, I’d like to know. That way, the odds would be in my favor. I’d just have to protect it being a strike, and notice how it comes out of his hand to be a strike, in comparison to a ball.”
Laurila: How would you label yourself as a hitter?
Winker: “I never want to put myself in the box as, ‘This is what I am as a hitter.’ I kind of want to try to do everything at the plate. I want to be able to walk. I want to be able to get hits. I want to get doubles. I want to get homers. I want to drive the ball to left-center, to right. I want to hit lefties, hit righties, hit starters, hit closers. I want to do everything. I don’t want to be boxed in as a hitter.”
Laurila: You mentioned home runs. While no one questions your ability to hit for a high average and get on base, power has been a question mark.
Winker: “I believe I have a ton of power. I don’t know the exact numbers, but if you combine my last two seasons — I was injured last year — I had something like 24 doubles and 14 home runs in fewer than 500 at bats. That’s power. Driving the ball is power. Hitting the ball hard is power.
“In saying that, I obviously don’t have Joey Gallo power, or Aaron Judge power. I’m not a guy who is going to put the ball out of the yard 50 times a year. I don’t know what that number will be in a whole season. Hopefully I’m healthy all year, and can find out.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.