The A’s Just Added a Cheap Breakout Slugger

Last year, the A’s couldn’t play defense. Matt Joyce isn’t really going to help with that. Last year, the A’s couldn’t keep their pitchers healthy. Matt Joyce isn’t really going to help with that. And, last year, the A’s couldn’t hit very much. Matt Joyce is probably going to help with that.

Here’s the deal — around this time of year, we write about a lot of transactions. We don’t write about every transaction, but we cover the majority of multi-year free-agent signings. Not every one of those signings is interesting. It took me forever to find something to say about Edinson Volquez, and I don’t even like the post that I wrote. Joyce has now signed with the A’s for two years and $11 million, meaning he got half of Volquez’s guarantee. Many of you have figured out this is a post about Joyce, and so you want to just leave and read anything else. But this one is interesting. Joyce is interesting. A few times during the season, I wanted to write him up, but I never got around to it. Now I have a reason, as the A’s might’ve found another cleanup hitter.

The A’s already did this once — they took a chance on Danny Valencia’s late breakout, and it went pretty well. Valencia figured out how to be a more complete hitter at 30. It seems like Joyce figured out how to be a more complete hitter at 31. Usually, you don’t want to buy into these things, but Joyce has a compelling story to tell. For $11 million, this is worth Oakland’s investment.

Even just eyeballing things, Joyce is odd. He was always a pretty good hitter, then he joined the Angels and tanked. Two years ago, by WAR, Joyce was one of the 10 worst position players in the game. Last year, with the Pirates, Joyce was about even in wRC+ with Robinson Cano and Corey Seager. He led all of baseball in walk rate, and he led by a considerable margin. Of all the players who were regulars or semi-regulars in both 2015 and 2016, no one saw a larger wRC+ increase than Joyce, who went up by 76 points. Jean Segura came in second. Segura got more attention, because he played every day. Joyce might’ve just earned a bigger role.

If you take the cold and boring approach, Joyce has recently been up and down, but his three-year wRC+ is 105. His projected wRC+ is 103. There you go — classic Matt Joyce. Uninteresting player. The kind of player you get for $11 million. I won’t blame anyone for deferring to the projection, but Joyce is his own player, with his own tale. His tale is one of a re-worked swing. I feel like there’s an increasing number of these guys. Joyce was embarrassed by his 2015, so he worked hard to put it behind him.

He checks the boxes you might expect. He got instruction from the guy who worked with J.D. Martinez. He got additional instruction from the guy who worked with Josh Donaldson. Both of those players have had non-traditional aging curves, demonstrating that you don’t necessarily need to follow the normal path to success. It’s not hard to spot where Joyce made the biggest change. Here’s a home-run swing from 2015 on a pitch over the middle:

And now here’s a home-run swing from 2016 on a pitch over the middle:

So much is about the hands, and this doesn’t take a trained eye to identify. Look at Joyce’s hand position upon release:


Two years ago, when Joyce was with the Angels, his hands were high up, directly behind his head. Look below and they’re more around his chest. Here’s a side view:


It might feel like a subtle thing. And, in truth, most mechanical tweaks are subtle things. There are only so many ways to throw or swing at a baseball. But taking good hacks comes down to fractions of a second, and fractions of an inch. With the changed swing, Joyce held his hands closer to the hitting zone. There was less area for his hands and bat to cover. That would allow his swing to be more consistent, and because his hands didn’t have to come down before going back up, it was easier for Joyce to generate quality loft.

The more I look at Joyce’s 2016 swing, the more I’m reminded of somebody else:

Yeah, Adrian Gonzalez starts with his hands higher, but he lowers them pretty quick, such that, upon release, he and Joyce look almost identical. Similar hand position, similar coil. A few years ago, the story went around that Charlie Morton tried to copy Roy Halladay’s mechanics. Matt Joyce intentionally or unintentionally kind of copied Adrian Gonzalez’s mechanics. As left-handed hitters go, that’s not a bad role model.

You’ve seen the results by the overall numbers. Statcast is maybe even more supportive of the breakout. Joyce leads the next-best player in this table by a full three ticks:

Top 10 Air-EV Increases
Hitter 2015 EV 2016 EV Change
Matt Joyce 86.0 94.3 8.3
Sean Rodriguez 90.1 95.4 5.3
Stephen Drew 88.4 93.6 5.2
Matt Holliday 90.1 95.2 5.1
Danny Espinosa 88.9 94.0 5.1
Danny Santana 86.5 91.4 4.9
Gordon Beckham 85.8 90.6 4.8
Tucker Barnhart 85.4 90.0 4.6
Tyler Flowers 90.3 94.5 4.2
Victor Martinez 89.0 92.9 3.9
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Average exit velocities on line drives, flies, and pop-ups. Minimum set to 50 qualifying batted balls for each year.

Two years ago, on average exit velocity on batted balls in the air, Joyce ranked in the sixth percentile. His most flattering comp would’ve been Zack Cozart. This past year, on average exit velocity on batted balls in the air, Joyce ranked in the 90th percentile. His most flattering comp would’ve been Paul Goldschmidt. Because Joyce was a part-time player in each year, we have to hesitate just a little bit, but I don’t know how much more he could’ve done. He was stinging baseballs, he was stinging baseballs differently, and he was swinging with discipline.

To tackle the last part first — I mentioned Joyce’s league-leading walk rate. He had 59 walks and 67 strikeouts. In terms of overall swing rate, Joyce ranked in baseball’s second percentile. He was very patient in the box. However, in swing rate at pitches over the middle third in the zone, Joyce ranked in baseball’s 87th percentile. When Joyce would deploy his swings, he’s mostly deploy them against very hittable pitches. He’s not a guy who gets himself out. He showed excellent pitch selection, which helped him to put up such wonderful numbers.

And just to close things out, because there’s still more — Joyce used to be more of a pull hitter. Through 2015, Joyce had a 205 wRC+ to the pull side, and an 83 wRC+ on other batted balls. Last year, Joyce had an 82 wRC+ to the pull side, and a 239 wRC+ on other batted balls. Before last year, Joyce pulled 81 of his 93 homers. Last year, he pulled just four of his 13 homers. Joyce tried to stay up the middle, and he was strong enough to have success. This is another one of those areas where Joyce compares well to Adrian Gonzalez. The swings look similar, and the results look similar.

The only thing Matt Joyce doesn’t have is the track record. I mean, he does already have a track record of being a pretty good hitter, but he doesn’t have a track record of being this kind of hitter. Given that, and given his age, you can see how he became available to the A’s. But there’s a lot to be intrigued by here, and the A’s might feel emboldened on account of the Valencia pickup. I haven’t even mentioned it yet, but there were a few encouraging signs in Joyce’s limited playing time against southpaws. He’s long been perceived as a platoon guy, but maybe the A’s will give him more of a chance. Valencia shed the platoon label. If you grant that some players are late bloomers, perhaps they should start with a cleaner slate. Maybe Joyce liked the A’s because they were willing to offer him the least limited opportunity.

For two years and $11 million, the A’s are basically paying Joyce the going rate for a decent middle reliever. Joyce got a smaller guarantee than Eric Thames just got from the Brewers, and Thames has been playing baseball in South Korea. The market decided that Joyce isn’t awesome, and the A’s probably aren’t about to win a World Series. Could be, Joyce goes back to being a pretty boring platoon-hitting lefty. Late bloomers, though, do exist. Joyce did everything he could to prove he’s one of them. This could be another good Oakland hitter added on the cheap.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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7 years ago

>He was always a pretty good hitter, then he joined the Angels and tanked.

As an Angels fan, I’ve learned that there’s one thing that all the hitters who have come to Anaheim and tanked have in common – playing for the Angels.

Owen Poindextermember
7 years ago
Reply to  Doug

This used to be the Mets specialty. Solution: suck for a while, get scammed in a high profile ponzi scheme, then rebuild with a GM who only agrees to take the job if the terrible owners stop jumping in and grabbing the controls. Also, have all your pitching prospects exceed expectations. When you get close to the prize, acquire as many left fielders as possible.

7 years ago
Reply to  Doug

Trout though!