Joey Wendle Feels the Best Swings Are Natural

Joey Wendle has been scorching the baseball. The Tampa Bay Rays infielder/outfielder is slashing .350/.405/.536 over his last 50 games, and he’s been especially torrid in his last 10. Wendle has 17 hits in his last 39 at-bats, pushing his season mark to a heady .300/.349/.429.

Pair those numbers with his defensively versatility — he’s started 10 or more games at three different positions — and the result for the 28-year-old late-bloomer is a 2.7 WAR that ranks first among AL rookies. Wendle is legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate.

His offensive output is surprising, but it’s by no means shocking. Wendle batted a solid .285 with a .441 slugging percentage in 380 Triple-A games, and he more than held his own in a pair of September cameos before coming to Tampa. The Rays acquired Wendle from the Oakland A’s last winter in exchange for Jonah Heim.

His left-handed stroke has never been better, and a big reason is that he’s no longer trying to build a better mousetrap. He’s simply being himself when he steps into the box.

“Personally, I feel the best swings are natural,” Wendle told me on a recent visit to Fenway Park. “I think some of my best swings came before I had any instruction. At the same time, you can slowly build them as you progress. I’d say that my career has gone from a natural swing to a bit of a forced swing, and now to a place where I understand my natural swing better.”

I asked the former West Chester University Golden Rams standout to elaborate on “forced swing.”

“I tried to do a little too much,” admitted Wendle, whom Cleveland took in the sixth round of the 2012 draft and subsequently swapped to Oakland for Brandon Moss. “I took too much input from too many people and kind of lost some of my natural ability as a hitter. I lost some of the athleticism and fluidity of my swing.”

It’s not as though he ever lost the ability to hit a baseball. His numbers down on the farm were always respectable. It’s more that he took a step back and began reaping the benefits of a clear mind.

“Instead of thinking about the ball and trying to hit it hard, I was thinking about where my hands were, where my weight was, what my back leg was doing,” explained Wendle. “When a hitter is going well, what’s going through his mind is almost nothing. Ninety percent of hitting is between the ears. You can lose yourself thinking about what you’re doing, because when you’re in the box, there’s not room for anything other than reacting to the baseball. If you’re comfortable with your swing and have a clear mind, you’re going to be at your best.”

Finding that comfort level is obviously a key, and Wendle recognizes that not all hitters are the same. For every J.D. Martinez who builds his swing and continuously dissects it on video, there are others who simply walk up to the plate and take their hacks.

“Whether it’s more natural or built is different for every guy,” said Wendle. “Some guys will come back from an offseason, hit 30 home runs, and tell you, ‘Oh, I saw a guy in California,’ or ‘I saw this guy in Connecticut.’ Wherever it might be. Other guys will say, ‘Yeah, I stayed home and just hit a couple times a week.’ That’s all they do year to year, and it works for them.”

Where a player is in his career can matter in that regard. Coaches in the minors, particularly the low minors, will often inform a player that what’s working now may not work at higher levels. They’ll suggest that, rather than waiting to be exposed, he should make what they deem to be a necessary adjustment now.

“I think that needs to be seen for itself,” opined Wendle. “There are a lot of guys in the major leagues whose ‘swings wouldn’t work at the highest level’ who are making them work somehow. Ultimately, it comes down to a player understanding his swing and being able to make adjustments off of it. If his swing limits him from being able to make adjustments easily, or if it’s a hit-and-miss swing, that’s usually when a coach is going to suggest he change something. For me, it was really just about becoming comfortable with my natural swing and not thinking about it when I hit.”

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.

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5 years ago

Go Rays!