Jesse Winker’s Showing More Punch Lately

Jesse Winker
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been an eventful couple of weeks for Jesse Winker. On the heels of an exceptional but injury-shortened campaign with the Reds and then a mid-March trade to the Mariners, he hasn’t exactly lived up to expectations, yet earlier this month, the team signed him to an extension that will carry him to free agency. On Sunday, Winker found himself at the center of the season’s biggest brawl, a spectacle that produced some unexpected payoffs as well as a boatload of suspensions, including a seven-gamer for the 29-year-old left fielder.

The atmosphere on Sunday in Anaheim was already tense in the wake of Mariners reliever Erik Swanson sailing a 95-mph fastball too close to the head of Mike Trout — who last week in Seattle homered five times in a five-game series, with four of the homers decisive — in the ninth inning of Saturday night’s game. Trout was understandably upset, though Swanson claimed he was merely trying to work up and in to a weak spot in the three-time MVP’s strike zone. The Angels, who lost after Trout was subsequently intentionally walked and then Shohei Ohtani retired, weren’t amused; as the epic breakdown from Jomboy Media showed, they spent a lot of time glaring and squawking as the Mariners celebrated their victory.

On Sunday, things escalated quickly. Angels starter Andrew Wantz’s fifth pitch of the day, a 93-mph fastball, whizzed behind the head of Mariners rookie Julio Rodríguez, prompting a warning from home plate umpire John Bacon. Winker came to the plate to lead off the second inning and was hit in his right hip by a 91-mph fastball. After jawing with catcher Max Stassi, gesturing toward Wantz and stepping out in front of home plate, he headed toward the Angels’ dugout, where he was met by a rather large contingent. His teammates quickly joined him, and a full-on scrum ensued, with Winker and teammate J.P. Crawford among those throwing punches.

Wantz, incidentally, was a last-minute replacement for scheduled starter Jose Suarez and was making his first major league start after 32 relief appearances dating back to last year. The Mariners later said that they believed the switch was made with the intention of Wantz acting as an enforcer, and that the 26-year-old righty should have been ejected after nearly hitting Rodríguez, but in his postgame comments, Wantz denied any intent with regards either to that pitch or the one that hit Winker. Winker, for his part, felt that if Wantz had been ejected for hitting him, none of the fighting would have occurred, and that Angels manager Phil Nevin and the injured Anthony Rendon (seen hitting Winker in the face with his left — non-injured — hand) instigated the brawl from the dugout.

In the end, just about everybody got his licks in, including some coaches and Mariners manager Scott Servais. Wantz and teammates Raisel Iglesias and Ryan Tepera were ejected, as were Winker, Crawford, and Rodríguez, plus Nevin and Servais. Iglesias heaved a case of sunflower seeds onto the field…

…and Winker gave Anaheim fans a two-fingered salute upon departing.

The festivities did carry a silver lining or two. One Mariners fan in Arkansas ordered a pepperoni pizza to be sent to the visitors’ clubhouse; Winker graciously acknowledged receiving it, and over 300 Mariners fans chipped in with tips for the delivery man, who received a welcome windfall. Meanwhile, a seven-year-old Reds fan named Abigail, who made news last year when her favorite player, Joey Votto, was ejected in the first inning from a game she attended, was at the game to watch Winker and Eugenio Suárez. Winker sent Abigail a baseball inscribed with an apology and a message: “Sorry I was ejected! I hope to see you at another game soon.”

Major League Baseball was nonetheless unamused and handed down a total of 12 suspensions, with Nevin drawing the longest one at 10 games, backing up the Mariners’ view (and, as captured by Jomboy’s lip-reading, Wantz’s own admission to Winker) that the team’s actions were intentional and retaliatory. Winker, as previously noted, was handed seven games; I’m guessing it would have been five if not for his offending digits. Rendon, who’s out for the remainder of the season due to right wrist surgery, drew a five-game suspension to be served when he’s back on the active roster next year; he’s also prohibited from sitting on the Angels’ bench for their next seven games. Wantz and Tepera received three-game suspensions, Iglesias got two games, and four Angels staffers (assistant pitching coach Dom Chiti, catching coach Bill Haselman, bench coach Ray Montgomery, and interpreter Manny Del Campo) were rung up with suspensions ranging from one to five games. On the Mariners’ side, Crawford got a five-game suspension and Rodríguez a two-gamer. Wantz (who elected not to appeal), Nevin, Chiti, and Del Campo began serving their suspensions on Tuesday night, with the rest of the staffers’ breaks staggered.

All of the other players elected to appeal their suspensions, including Winker, whose performance beyond the melee is worth a closer look. Dialing back first to his time in Cincinnati, he was in the midst of the best of his five major league seasons last year when he was sidelined by an intercostal strain suffered on August 15. He had played 109 of the Reds’ 119 games to that point and had already made his first All-Star team and set career highs in homers (24), RBI (77), and WAR (3.1). But while the Reds were initially hopeful of a minimum stay on the injured list, he was sidelined for over a month, then re-aggravated the injury in his first game back, on September 17, and didn’t play another game. Still, it was his second straight campaign with a wRC+ of at least 140; after hitting .255/.388/.544 (143 wRC+) with 12 homers in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, he finished at .305/.394/.556 (148 wRC+).

The Reds, who might have made the playoffs with a healthy Winker and a few other breaks (not to mention better roster management), chose to tear things down instead. After the lockout ended in March, they traded Winker and Suárez to the Mariners in exchange for lefty prospect Brandon Williamson, righty Justin Dunn, outfielder Jake Fraley, and a player to be named later, who ended up being righty prospect Connor Phillips.

Whether due to the short spring training, the change from a very hitter-friendly environment to a much more pitcher-friendly one, or the deadened baseball and adverse hitting conditions, Winker struggled mightily in April, hitting just .169/.326/.197 (69 wRC+); in 89 PA he produced only two extra-base hits, both doubles. He was subpar but more respectable in May (.243/.301/.350, 92 wRC+ in 113 PA) and finally homered for the first time on May 5, and has heated up in June (.259/.429/.457, 167 wRC+ in 105 PA). That crunches down to a .227/.352/.341 line and a 111 wRC+ — respectable, but odd-looking and underwhelming, highly dependent upon his AL-high 16.0% walk rate. Meanwhile, his career-low .114 ISO is less than half of last year’s .251.

What gives? Winker’s quality of contact has suffered with the move. He’s suddenly hitting the ball in the air more often, and at unproductive angles:

Jesse Winker Batted Ball Profile
Season GB/FB GB% FB% EV LA Barrel% HardHit% Under%
2018 1.24 42.1% 33.9% 90.9 13.6 5.9% 42.2% 25.70%
2019 1.96 48.7% 24.9% 89.2 7.2 4.3% 39.9% 18.7%
2020 1.67 48.1% 28.8% 92.1 10.5 13.5% 49.0% 16.3%
2021 1.26 42.0% 33.3% 90.6 10.8 11.2% 46.8% 20.1%
2022 0.94 37.3% 39.8% 87.7 17.0 6.9% 32.7% 30.7%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Winker’s average exit velocity is down by nearly three full miles per hour relative to last year, and his average launch angle is up over six degrees. He’s barreling the ball less frequently and hitting it in the air more often, but not very hard. I’m not sure what the exact parameters of the “Under%” are, but they’re poorly hit balls with high launch angles; on an MLB-wide basis, 25.5% of balls have been hit in such fashion this year, with an average exit velo of 85.8 degrees, an average launch angle of 45.6 degrees, an expected batting average of .067, and an expected slugging percentage of .134. They’re virtually automatic outs, in other words, and Winker is hitting about 50% more of those than last year, Looking at it from a more traditional vantage, he’s already hit 11 infield fly balls, matching last year’s total in 178 fewer plate appearances; by comparison, he hit 12 in 901 PA from 2018 to ’20, that while hitting for a 124 wRC+.

In analyzing Winker’s breakout last year, one thing I noted was that pulled fly balls made up a greater share of his batted balls than before and that he was getting more mileage out of them. He’s actually hitting them at an even greater clip this year than last, but the payoff hasn’t been there:

Jesse Winker Pulled Fly Balls
Season Pulled FB BBE Pull FB% SLG
2018 13 237 5.5% 0.923
2019 6 278 2.2% 1.333
2020 11 104 10.6% 2.091
2021 24 348 6.9% 2.083
2022 17 202 8.4% 0.824

Some of this may have to do with Winker moving from one of the majors’ most homer-conducive parks to one that’s slightly homer-suppressing; Great American Ballpark had a 113 park home run factor for lefties last year, compared to T-Mobile’s 96. Winker hit six pulled fly balls at home last year, with four of them hits, all homers, for a 2.667 SLG; this year, he’s already hit eight such balls at home but has only one hit, a homer, to show for it, and a .500 SLG. That’s a very small sample and doesn’t fully explain Winker’s fall-off, but it’s additionally worth noting that he’s hitting just .198/.328/.283 (95 wRC+) at home and .248/.369/.383 (121 wRC+) on the road, that after having rather even splits over the previous two seasons (wRC+ of 146 at home, 148 away).

Pitch-wise, Winker’s performance has eroded considerably relative to last year when it comes to four-seam fastballs and curves, even though his whiff rates on those pitches have improved (his strikeout rate in general has only climbed from 15.5% to 17.8%). A whole lot of that erosion owes to the gap between his actual and Statcast-expected numbers:

Jesse Winker by Pitch Type, 2021 vs. 2022
Season Pitch % AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA Whiff
2021 4-Seam 35.5% .314 .278 .500 .481 .418 .384 22.1%
2022 4-Seam 43.1% .174 .254 .283 .548 .328 .416 23.0%
2021 Sinker 15.4% .338 .338 .738 .659 .506 .470 11.3%
2022 Sinker 9.2% .391 .331 .652 .505 .475 .395 5.7%
2021 Curve 11.0% .295 .273 .500 .432 .355 .317 21.1%
2022 Curve 11.0% .231 .202 .231 .236 .226 .208 19.6%
2021 Slider 17.7% .213 .212 .427 .382 .321 .304 25.6%
2022 Slider 18.6% .273 .299 .400 .424 .332 .348 18.3%
2021 Changeup 11.6% .375 .389 .696 .685 .477 .461 14.4%
2022 Changeup 10.6% .212 .316 .333 .513 .274 .378 20.3%
2021 Cutter 6.6% .258 .324 .516 .655 .369 .443 25.0%
2022 Cutter 5.4% .235 .224 .353 .320 .355 .336 28.1%
2021 Splitter 2.2% .417 .332 .667 .417 .481 .349 15.0%
2022 Splitter 2.0% .167 .255 .167 .426 .256 .353 16.7%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Those gaps carry over into his aggregate numbers:

Jesse Winker Expected Stats
Season AVG xBA Dif SLG xSLG Dif wOBA xwOBA Dif
2018 .299 .275 .024 .431 .452 -.021 .366 .366 .000
2019 .269 .274 -.005 .473 .435 .038 .351 .346 .005
2020 .255 .265 -.010 .544 .524 .020 .396 .397 -.001
2021 .305 .295 .010 .556 .524 .032 .403 .390 .013
2022 .230 .272 -.042 .345 .462 -.117 .317 .367 -.050

Granted, some of this will come out in the wash once the expected stats are recalibrated, but for now, they show that Winker’s xSLG is in the vicinity of his 2018–19 marks and generally respectable. His 117-point shortfall in slugging percentage puts him in the 88th percentile among qualifiers. Ouch.

Winker recently dismissed the notion that his woes were mechanical and went 9-for-20 with four extra-base hits and seven walks in the six games between that dismissal and Saturday’s fracas. The surge began just days after he and the Mariners avoided arbitration via a two-year, $14.5 million deal covering this season and next, his last one before reaching free agency. After making $3.15 million last season, he sought $7 million this year, with the Mariners offering $5.4 million; the sides avoided a hearing by meeting more or less in the middle ($6.25 million for 2022) with a bump to $8.25 million for next year. Via Cot’s Contracts, the deal also includes award bonuses ($150,000 for MVP, $100,000 for World Series MVP, $50,000 each for All Star election, LCS MVP, Silver Slugger, and Gold Glove, and $25,000 for each All Star selection), and, for 2023, plate appearances bonuses ($100,000 apiece for reaching 500 and 550 PA, $200,000 for reaching 600 PA). The Gold Glove is particularly unlikely given that Winker is at -13 DRS and -9 RAA in left field over the past two seasons, plus he hasn’t reached 500 PA in a season yet due to injuries, but if he does stay healthy and performs well, he’ll get a bit more scratch.

Maybe Winker’s improved performance has something to do with the additional security of having next year’s deal settled; after all, the Mariners are deep in outfielders, and continued struggles would have opened up the possibility of a non-tender. What is certain is that if the Mariners (34–41) are to have any shot at reaching the playoffs, they’ll probably need him to perform at something closer to his 2020–21 levels, both before and after he serves his upcoming suspension.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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3 months ago

I actually thought 10 games was light for Nevin. If MLB wants the brawls out of the game, then they need to make it tougher on managers who tell their players to head hunt. It seems pretty clear that Nevin called for the hit on Rodriguez and Winker here.

3 months ago
Reply to  Nathaniel

Yeah, the article does a big disservice to the reader by making the Mariners out to be the problem here. The Mariners’ statements are described as “claimed” and “believed” and the Angels’ are described as “understandably upset” and “Wantz denied”.

I get being shaken when a pitch nearly hits your head, but nobody watching that inning thought it was intentional: Swanson was wild, it was a close game, and Trout has been teeing off on the Mariners for years without anybody throwing at him. Nevin’s actions, between using an opener just to throw at people and throwing at someone’s head specifically were one-sided and pretty much unprecedented in the modern game, and should be viewed for what they are.

3 months ago
Reply to  Jay Jaffe

It registered. My issue is that the only thing the Mariners did wrong here (and it’s not a small thing; entirely worthy of criticism) is getting in the fight. Describing the lead up as a “both sides” situation while using neutral language for the instigators and incredulous language for the non-instigators is unfair.

My larger concern, piggybacking on what Nathaniel’s saying is that what Nevin did is really really messed up and could serve as a framework for the unfortunately large contingent of managers who believe in the power of intentionally hitting batters.

3 months ago
Reply to  Jay Jaffe

I think it both does and doesn’t. It’s true he got the longest suspension, a signal by MLB that he was the most culpable. However, unlike a player, the effect of a manager suspension is not clear to me. And I mean it’s literally not clear. Perhaps there are ways in which it’s impactful that I don’t realize.

Unlike a player, where you’re directly taking WAR away from the team, for the manager, it would seem they’re just removing his presence on the field for those games, and I suppose in press conferences. How much he really matters in terms of them winning is unknown, but probably not huge when compared to a “replacement manager” (he himself is a replacement manager). Plus, he’s still the boss, functioning as the team’s leader and making whatever decisions he would normally make outside the games, right?

So in that way, it’s not clear to me that 10 games is an effective deterrent for such an action. And if it’s not clear to me, I would wager that it’s not clear to a lot of people (I’d be interested to know what proportion of fans vs. players vs. managers think it’s a big deal). I think that very uncertainty is an argument against its effectiveness.

3 months ago
Reply to  Jay Jaffe

I think my point was that it’s not clear to me that 10 games is a sufficient deterrent to this behavior in the future. Usually there’s some level of deniability for a manager but not here. Nevin was yelling at the Mariners the day before the fight, saying he was going to “f— them up” and then Wantz basically told Winker he was directed to throw at him. If the league wants to stop the retaliatory bean ball wars, then season-long suspensions might be necessary.

Or maybe the Angels will fire him; now Archie Bradley is out for at least a couple months and it’s pretty clear to me that this is Nevin’s fault for directing Wantz to head hunt.

3 months ago
Reply to  ghug

Lookout Landing had a pretty graphic that showed Swanson in every game until then, and in that one game. He had had pinpoint control and then for one game he lost it. That is not an unusual occurrence for a major league pitcher.

Also, after the Angels clearly threw at Rodriguez in the first, Marco Gonzalez faced both Trout and Ohtani without throwing at either of them (Trout struck out with a man on first and Ohtani then walked). The Angels then hit Winker and let’s not be children; it was intentional. The Mariners were playing baseball and the Angels were thinking this was a rumble.

Envy Angelmember
3 months ago
Reply to  Nathaniel

Swanson’s pitch buzzed Trout after the pitching coach came to the mound, and then after the pitch, they gave Trout an intentional walk. Why didn’t they just walk him to begin with? The article mentions the celebration the Mariners made after the game, including one little circle dance in the outfield and another hop-step at second base. At least one of those involved Winker and Rodríguez, and both dances were performed while Nevin was watching from the dugout.

3 months ago
Reply to  Envy Angel

It makes sense that they would be more open to the intentional walk of Trout when the count was 2-0 rather than 0-0. Swanson was wild his entire outing and was struggling to locate his fastball and intentional HBP typically don’t happen to put the tying run on base in the bottom of the ninth with the reigning MVP on deck. It doesn’t seem intentional to me, but I can understand why the Angels would be upset by it given the instincts to protect their guys.

3 months ago
Reply to  Envy Angel

The M’s do that same celebration after every win, why would they wait for the other team to leave the field?

3 months ago
Reply to  Envy Angel

So now they can’t celebrate a win? .

3 months ago
Reply to  Envy Angel

It’s pretty common to throw some pitches to a guy when you don’t really want give him anything to hit. See if he’ll swing at some balls/borderline pitches. If he gets a couple of strikes, then you’re in business and can actually try to get him out. If he takes, you can just walk him.

The last time they intentionally walked Trout, that’s exactly what they did, threw him 3 balls then gave him the base.