Evaluating Desmond Jennings | The Process Report

Evaluating Desmond Jennings

Around this time two years ago the Rays promoted Desmond Jennings to the majors for the second time. The Alabama native has since played in nearly 300 games, and ended the first half with career marks of .254/.330/.420. Although Jennings—who turns 27 on Halloween’s eve—is not a finished product, he is closer to that state than at any previous time. As such it can be productive to reflect on the player he’s become.

Before delving into Jennings’ play, it’s pertinent to note the date. Were Jennings in another organization, one inattentive to financially driven mechanisms, he would have celebrated this anniversary months—if not a year—earlier. But, because he came up with the Rays, he did not reach the majors for good until after his Super-Two window passed. Indeed, Jennings spent more time in Triple-A than some comparable prospects spend in both segments of the upper-minors. However frustrating the wait was for all parties involved, it’s hard to deny the potential impact it may have had on Jennings’ game.

Despite splitting time between the diamond and the gridiron as an amateur, Jennings’ game is not short on nuance. Perhaps the polish was always there, and would’ve shown with an earlier promotion. Whatever the case may be, Jennings has become one of the Rays’ best all-around players.

The best example of Jennings blending athleticism with nuance comes from his work on the basepaths. Last season no qualified player succeeded at a higher rate on stolen-base attempts than Jennings, who swiped bags on 94 percent of his tries. That kind of accomplishment is often credited to speed, of which Jennings has plenty. But there’s more to it. Speed a catalytic tool, like power, and requires an enabler to show up in games. Running wild all over the place doesn’t work. Picking spots and diagnosing opportunities separates fast, average baserunners and fast, great baserunners. Jennings is closer to the second group. His career stolen-base success rate is over 80 percent and he’s an extra-base taking machine during the run of play.

The same philosophy applies on defense. Speed can offset mistakes in route and read, but the transcendent defenders use it to close space in a special way. Jennings’ game-ending catch to close out the first half is a good example, as he ran down a ball to his right side that otherwise would’ve gone for extra bases. If there were concerns about how Jennings—who, despite being a natural center fielder, spent the past two seasons in left field—would compare to B.J. Upton, then any major differences have not shown themselves often nor in good light. Upton possesses the stronger arm—an artifact from his days as a shortstop—while Jennings seems more aware of his shortcomings, and less likely to make the same mistake twice.

Speed, though evident throughout Jennings’ game, is not his only positive attribute offensively. Like his Tampa Bay outfielder predecessors, ranging from Rocco Baldelli to Carl Crawford to Upton, Jennings intermixes feats of power in with all the dazzling legwork. He’s yet to become a top-of-the-order mainstay but continues to show progress. This season Jennings has cut his strikeout rate while increasing his walk rate and power output. His thievery wasn’t as sharp as usual to begin the season, but he’s since gotten back on track.

One of the beauties of baseball is the interconnected nature of successful traits. Jennings is a fastball hitter. In order to prey on heaters he needs to work into situations where the pitcher dares to sneak one by him. Those temptations burn in first-pitch situations, along with spots where Jennings is ahead in the count. Yet in order for Jennings to get ahead he must lay off garbage pitches, and therefore maintain a tight command of his strike zone. In a sense the key to Jennings’ game—defensively, on the basepaths, and at the plate—revolves around discipline. Luckily, in addition to being a brilliant athlete, Jennings seems to have a feel for baseball. The Rays have benefited these last two years, and should enjoy the four and a half seasons to come before Jennings qualifies for free agency.

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