Minority Report: Joey Meneses

Joey Meneses
Arizona Republic

You’ve probably seen the jokes. Oh, the Nationals might have traded Juan Soto, but it’s no big deal, because they have Juan Soto’s replacement waiting in the wings. Ooh, intriguing! But of course, it’s mostly a setup to make a crack about how Joey Meneses is on an unsustainable heater — fifteen minutes of fame before an inevitable crash back to just-okayness.

Heck, look at our projections for him this year. Depth Charts pegs him for 602 plate appearances, a 111 wRC+, and 1.5 WAR. That’s not awful or anything, but astute readers will note that Meneses managed 1.5 WAR last season in just 240 plate appearances. From his debut on August 2 through the end of the season, he was 11th in baseball in wRC+. This year, we’re projecting him to be 136th.

That sucks! It really sucks. It’s partially unavoidable, though. We’ve all gotten so used to projections, so used to the fact that how a player does in any given year is only a small part of what we should use to forecast their future, that actual performances largely get lost in the mix. The forecasts are darn good at their jobs in aggregate. It’s easy to listen to what they have to say and tune out that pesky reality that disagrees.

Allow me to offer a humble counterpoint: sometimes projections are wrong. Meneses mashed all the way through last year, and then he took the winter off and came back mashing for Team Mexico in the World Baseball Classic. Sure, it was only six games, but he hit .370/.370/.593 and popped two homers against Team USA. Not bad for an encore performance, and he struck out less than 10% of the time, to boot. And while the pitching quality wasn’t uniformly high in the WBC, that’s still an excellent line.

So, what’s Meneses’s greatest skill? That would be hitting the ball hard. He graded out in the 71st percentile for maximum exit velocity per Statcast, and coincidentally enough in the 71st percentile for 95th percentile exit velocity as well. If you’re looking for rough comparisons to that, his top-end power is right in line with that of Starling Marte, Rhys Hoskins, Anthony Rizzo, and J.T. Realmuto.

In addition to scalding the ball, Meneses did a good job matching power with angle. When he put the ball in the air, he crushed it, posting an 87th-percentile mark for air exit velocity. More percentile time: he was in the 85th for air hard-hit rate, or the percentage of balls he put in the air that he hit 95 mph or harder. That’s elite territory; Mike Trout and Willy Adames weren’t far ahead of him on the list, and Corey Seager and Realmuto weren’t far behind.

It’s one thing to smash air balls if you’re rarely able to elevate, but Meneses didn’t have that problem, posting a groundball rate right around league average. And he did that without maxing out his pull side. Batters perform better when they pull the ball in the air; they both hit it harder and get better results for the same exit velocity/launch angle combination. I sometimes look at a hitter who has already maxed out his air pull rate when I’m looking for regression, because there’s nowhere to go but down. But Meneses is the opposite, rating toward the bottom of the league in air pull rate. That implies there might be more in his bat if he can access left field more frequently. Want to guess where Meneses’s two WBC home runs went? That’s right: left field.

If you combine hitting the ball hard and putting it in the air, you get at one of the purest hitting statistics we’ve found in the Statcast era: barrels. A barrel is a ball hit very hard and at a good angle, such that it frequently turns into extra bases. There, he ranks in the 74th percentile, and again, that’s with him not maxing out his contact quality. In other words, he’s a bopper, and he could even be more of a bopper this year.

That’s what happens when Meneses makes contact with the ball. The easiest way for pitchers to beat him seems clear: don’t let him make contact. But, well, he doesn’t seem particularly susceptible to getting junk-balled out of the league if pitchers decide to stop throwing him fastballs.

To be clear, Meneses feasts on fastballs. He’s a major league hitter, after all, and a powerful one. His approach against four-seamers is letter-perfect: he chases them at an average rate, swings when they’re in the zone at an average rate, and does a ton of damage when he connects. Despite all the power in his swing, he connects quite often — slightly more than league average, which is great for someone with his ability to garner extra bases.

So just throw him a slider then! Major league pitchers tried that approach with him, but they didn’t get the success you’d hope for. He chased at an average rate, made decent contact when he swung, and acquitted himself well enough overall that pitchers couldn’t simply spam sliders and watch him flail away at pitches out of the zone. And while it was a small sample, Meneses feasted on curveballs. I’m talking “never throw this to me again” level feasting. He put 17 curveballs into play and turned that into two homers and four doubles. You know how I mentioned that pulling the ball increases your production, even for similar batted ball metrics? He’s great at pulling curveballs. Both homers and three of the four doubles were pulled, the homers golfed over the left field fence on balls that weren’t barrels and yet carried 350 feet anyway.

That’s not to say that Meneses has no weaknesses. He swings often enough, and early enough, that he’s never going to run a high walk rate. That makes contact quality more important than it might otherwise be; if he’s not mashing when he connects, he could end up as an empty average guy, which is not where you want to be as a 31-year-old corner outfielder/first baseman. That might work okay if he hit .324 again, but let’s be real: that’s not happening. His .371 BABIP is out of line with anything he accomplished in the minors, and he handily outperformed his Statcast expected metrics last year. One place I completely agree with projection systems is on his BABIP, which clusters around .300 regardless of which system you prefer.

But even if you accept a bit of regression there, Meneses profiles as an excellent hitter if you believe his 2022 numbers. Here’s a set of hitters that I think goes a long way toward explaining how things went for him last year:

Optimistic Meneses Comps
Player O-Swing% Z-Swing% EV95 Barrel Rate Air Hard Hit Rate Air Pull Rate
Randy Arozarena 33.4% 65.6% 106.7 7.9% 44.2% 28.8%
Joey Meneses 33.1% 68.2% 105.9 9.9% 52.2% 22.2%
José Ramírez 32.3% 67.9% 105.5 6.6% 34.0% 39.9%
Anthony Rizzo 32.1% 65.6% 105.9 10.9% 46.7% 37.3%
Xander Bogaerts 31.9% 66.0% 105.6 6.5% 39.9% 31.1%

That’s an excellent group of hitters. Sure, Ramírez hurt his hand, but he posted a 139 wRC+ in the relevant sample up above. Rizzo and Bogaerts checked in above 130, and Arozarena brought up the still-impressive rear with a 125 mark. These are some serious hitters, and while I don’t think Meneses is their equal, he’s not that far off. The only place he doesn’t measure up is in his ability to pull the ball when he puts it in the air, and I think that’s the easiest place for him to take a step forward.

Is this going to happen? I have no idea. Projections don’t think so, and plenty of hitters have burst onto the scene before regressing back toward league average in the rest of their career. That’s not a given, though. Look no further than Meneses’ Team Mexico co-star, Arozarena. He became an overnight playoff sensation in 2020, but it was reasonable to expect a comedown after that. Instead, he’s eclipsed his projections consistently and has a career 129 wRC+ as a result. That never looked sustainable right up until it was.

Projection systems inhale all sorts of data to make baseline assumptions. They know what Meneses did in the minors, his draft pedigree, and his age. They know what players like him have done in the past, on average. They know the cruel reality that for many players, a career year is just that. But they’re not infallible. They’re educated guesses. Players can change. Plenty of journeymen have failed, but not all. Meneses probably isn’t the rare exception, but probably and certainly aren’t the same word. The projection systems are always right on average, but like the weird water-breathing mutants in the Tom Cruise vehicle that I absolutely loved as a teen, they’re fallible.

In the end, what I have to say about Meneses won’t do anything to affect how well he plays. The same is true of our projections, though. At the end of the day, only he (and his teammates and coaches, and the pitchers who face him, and maybe a nutritionist or two, plus whoever books the team’s hotels… well, you get the idea, there are a lot of possible hands helping here) can determine his future. Consider this my minority report: maybe Meneses is just an excellent major league hitter, right now, and our future-prognostication machines haven’t caught up yet.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

Remember Joey Bats? A guy can hope, right?