Surging Reds Lose Hot-Hitting Jesse Winker but Gain Some Infield Depth

The Reds have been surging lately, but they’ll be challenged to maintain their momentum with the loss of one of their biggest bats. On Monday they placed Jesse Winker on the injured list with an intercostal strain, costing them the services of one of the league’s top hitters for at least 10 days and perhaps longer. The move does at least have a silver lining via the promotion of top prospect Jose Barrero, who could help shore up the infield, but the loss of Winker comes at an inopportune time, as the race for the NL’s second Wild Card spot is as tight as it’s been since late May.

The 27-year-old Winker was initially scratched from the Reds’ lineup on Friday with what the Reds called lower back tightness, and he didn’t play on Saturday, either. He returned to the lineup on Sunday, but after flying out in each of his first two plate appearances, he left the game in the third inning. Afterwards, manager David Bell told reporters that Winker was actually dealing with an intercostal strain:

Winker underwent an MRI on Monday and was placed on the IL, after which Bell told reporters that the team doesn’t consider the injury “a long-term issue.” The Reds hope he can return in 10 days, but his landing on the IL is at least somewhat ominous. Per Derek Rhoads’ Hitter Injury Dashboard, position players who landed on the injured list with an intercostal strain from 2010-20 averaged 29.2 days missed, with a median of 27 days. Via MLB.com, even Grade 1 strains, the least severe, typically require two to three weeks to recover.

For the Reds, losing Winker for even 10 days is a bummer, as he’s built upon last year’s breakout season, hitting his way to the upper reaches of the NL’s offensive leaderboards. His 152 wRC+ ranks third in the league, his .560 slugging percentage fourth, his .395 on-base percentage and .307 batting average both fifth, his 24 homers tied for eighth, and his 3.5 WAR 11th. He has been particularly, uh, red-hot since the All-Star break, hitting .327/.433/.624 (177 wRC+), that while walking more frequently (14.2%) than striking out (10.1%).

Winker has always hit well since reaching the majors in 2017, producing a 126 wRC+ across his first four seasons, with a low of 113 (2018) and a high of 146 (2020) but since last season, he’s been hitting the ball harder, and elevating it with greater consistency:

Jesse Winker Batted Ball Profile
Season GB/FB GB% Pull% EV LA Barrel% Hard% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2018 1.24 42.1% 37.1% 90.9 13.6 5.9% 42.2% .299 .272 .431 .448 .366 .363
2019 1.96 48.7% 39.9% 89.2 7.2 4.3% 39.9% .269 .264 .473 .421 .351 .336
2020 1.67 48.1% 46.2% 92.1 10.5 13.5% 49.0% .255 .263 .544 .521 .396 .394
2021 1.25 41.7% 39.7% 90.7 10.8 11.3% 47.0% .307 .293 .560 .517 .406 .388

The progress has been uneven, in that Winker actually posted higher average exit velocities before this year, and had even higher barrel and hard-hit rates last year. Even so, he’s extended his general improvement across his largest slice of playing time to date, and while cutting down his groundball rate, his expected batting average and slugging percentage and wOBA have increased. He’s exceeded his expected numbers slightly this year, but the gap isn’t exceptional; he ranks in the 89th percentile in xSLG, but in the 82nd percentile in SLG-xSLG differential.

As Devan Fink noted earlier this year, Winker has generally hit much better at Great American Ballpark than on the road. Prior to 2020 the ga(b)p was 28 points of wRC+ (136-108), but over the past two seasons, it’s narrowed to four points (152-148). As before, he’s still something of a pushover against lefties, hitting for an 80 wRC+ over the past two seasons, compared to a 172 mark against righties, but that’s still better than his 52-137 split from 2017-19.

One interesting aspect of Winker’s breakout is that while he’s not pulling the ball all that more often (last year being an exception, albeit a short-season one), he’s pulling fly balls with significantly greater frequency and greater authority. Such balls accounted for just 3.7% of his batted ball events in 2018-19, but 7.8% in ’20-21 (7.0% this year); where he slugged 1.053 on those balls in ’18-19, he’s up to 2.086 in ’20-21. Ten of his 24 homers this year have come on pulled fly balls, one more than his total from 2018-20.

That total is on hold, alas. The Reds have their share of good hitters and hot ones besides Winker; Joey Votto, Nick Castellanos, and Jonathan India all rank among the NL’s top 15 in wRC+, with marks of 132 or higher, while Votto, India, and Kyle Farmer all rank among the NL’s top 10 in wRC+ since the start of the second half, with marks of 155 or higher. They are not, however, awash in spare outfielders who can rake. Aristides Aquino has hit an uneven .216/.326/.495 (112 wRC+), while Shogo Akiyama has managed just a .221/.304/.271 line (58 wRC+).

One apparent solution for the Reds would have been to recall Nick Senzel, who came off the 60-day injured list on Sunday and was optioned to Triple-A Louisville. The 26-year-old Senzel hit just .252/.323/.315 (75 wRC+) in 124 PA for the Reds this year before undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in late May in order to clean out damaged cartilage on the underside of his patella. According to Louisville manager Pat Kelly, under whom he’s played during his rehab assignment, Senzel is still favoring his left knee. Via The Athletic’s C. Trent Rosecrans:

“Just watching him play, for me, he’s not 100 percent. You can see still a slight favor to the knee. For me, the key is in hitting, you have to be able to hit against a firm front side. That left knee, you have to trust it. I think that’s a big part of it.”

Instead of recalling Senzel, the team tabbed Barrero, the org’s top prospect and number 29 overall on The Board, up from 49 this spring. The 23-year-old shortstop, whom the Reds signed out of Cuba for $5 million in 2017, got his feet wet in the majors last year, jumping from High-A to the big leagues but hitting just .194/.206/.194 in 68 PA. He was known as Jose Garcia at the time, but in May he changed his surname to honor his mother, who recently died from a COVID-related illness in Cuba, and this year he’s hit a combined .303/.378/.532 with 17 homers in 361 PA at Chattanooga (Double-A) and Louisville.

Per our prospect expert Eric Longenhagen’s reports, the 6-foot-2, 175-pound Barrero possesses a premium set of tools and was already considered an outstanding defender with plus-plus hands, actions, and arm strength. Though he’s still somewhat chase-happy against breaking pitches, he’s done’s a better job of laying off; after walking 5.5% of the time in 2019 and 1.5% in his brief big-league stay, he’s up to 9.4% this year; meanwhile, his strikeout rate — 18.4% at High-A, but 38.2% in the majors — is back to a manageable 22.7%, and he’s done a better job of tapping into his above-average raw power. His tendency to chase may make him streaky and frustrating at times, but his ceiling is high.

The Reds’ refusal to sign a shortstop to replace the departed Freddy Galvis landed them on my Replacement Level Killers list, as Eugenio Suárez struggled after temporarily moving from third base and Farmer hit like Kyle Farmer, career utilityman. The latter has heated up lately, feasting on fastballs and lifting his wRC+ to a respectable 95. Not only has he done that despite playing through a sports hernia, he’s posted exceptional defensive metrics, particularly for a guy who hasn’t played the position regularly in at least a decade: 2.2 UZR, 3 DRS, 6 OAA in 712 innings. The current plan is for him to retain the starting job while Barrero serves in a utility role, seeing time at second, short, and third, but there’s little question which way the future points.

So long as Winker’s not out too long — and that’s a significant unknown — Monday’s set of transactions has a chance to improve the Reds’ chances at a Wild Card spot in the long run. Riding a 26-15 record since the start of July, they’re a season-high 10 games above .500 (65-55) and now trail the sputtering Padres (18-21 since the start of July, and 67-54 overall) by just a game and a half. Even with the Reds playing a much, much easier schedule (.462 opponents winning percentage versus .535), our Playoff Odds give the Padres the edge on a spot by over a nine-point margin (47.3% to 37.9%), but the two teams are as close as they’ve been all season, and the overall race for the two Wild Card spots is as tight as it’s been since late May:

For the first two months of the season, the Reds didn’t appear to be a significant player in any kind of playoff race – they went just 24-28 through the end of May — but the torrid hitting of Winker and friends (and some improved pitching) has helped to change that. Now, whether they can hold down the fort until their slugging left fielder returns could prove to be a deciding factor in determining the playoff picture.





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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Barrero’s walk last night doubled his career number of major league walks. Perhaps his changed approach will pay immediate dividends