Under The Hood: Jennings, Loney, Joyce
Sometimes you have to go under the hood to find the edge according to Joe Maddon. Before the Rays resume play tonight here are some thoughts, observations and notes from a view askew…
Desmond Jennings is toasty. The reigning American League Player of the Week is hitting .286/.386/.505 in 130 plate appearances. He looks more comfortable now that he is out of the leadoff spot and is accepting more walks. He has also improved upon a key weakness.
In past years, pitchers were able to neutralize Jennings up and away. Seeing primarily fastballs, he hit just .243 on these pitches from 2011-2013. His Isolated Power measured at .139 and he whiffed on 22 percent of his swings.
It does not look like Jennings has undergone radical mechanical adjustments, but he is now crushing the balls thrown to this quadrant of the zone. Perhaps better pitch recognition is a factor. Whatever the reason, he is hitting .400 in this area in 2014. His ISO has spiked all the way to .300 and his swing and misses are down all while seeing a similar pitch mix. He may never develop into the prototypical leadoff hitter, but if continues to hit the ball with authority and getting on base the labels won’t really matter.
It is funny how quiet detractors of James Loney get when he’s spraying line drives around the field. Loney is 725 plate appearances into the Rays’ portion of his career and has hit .304/.358/.434 in Tampa Bay blue. As theorized last season, this does not look like Casey Kotchman 2011. Loney has made tangible adjustments and has always had talent.
One of those talents seems to be “clutch.” You’ll hear about it on broadcasts, and see it in 140-character form on twitter, but if Loney strides to the plate in a high-leverage situation late in the game, his performance in these instances will be mentioned and with some merit. Since the beginning of 2013, Loney has hit .281/.333/.391 during innings one through six. This covers 489 plate appearances. The other 236 appearances have come in the seventh inning or later. In crunch time, Loney has hit .352/.408/.526. His batting average trails only Adrian Beltre in all of baseball while posing the sixth highest OPS.
If you believe in clutch – and there is such a thing as being able to maintain composure – then your narrative ends there. But it is likely that numerous factors are in play such, but not limited to: tired starters, relief matchups and Loney’s skill with the stick.
Loney has been lauded for his ability to use the entire field; however, he becomes more of a pull hitter late in games. Consider this, his pull rate climbs from 38 percent in the first six innings to 45 percent in the seventh frame or later.
The team at Baseball Info Solutions has provided us with some data in regards to Loney and the shift. The league average lefty has been shifted 15 percent of the time (with clear video evidence) since 2013. Loney has been shifted slightly less at 13 percent. That said, even with the movement, he has been able to beat the shift late. According to their data, Loney has a .333 average against the shift in the seventh inning or later. How he is able is deserving of additional attention.
Matt Joyce was either a month early or he may finally becoming a more well-rounded hitter. Typically Joyce reserves his hot streak for the month of May, but he enters play tonight with a line of .287/.404/.450. An understanding of the strike zone has always been in his toolbox, but he is showing even greater recognition thus far.
Despite walking in 11 percent of his plate appearances from 2011-2013, Joyce enjoyed fishing. He swung 43 percent of the time with a quarter of those hacks coming on pitches out of the zone. The bulk of the chases were up, away or both.
To say Joyce has reeled it in would be an understatement. He has taken 165 swings this year (38 percent) and chased just 28 times. The 12.3 percent chase rate is not only well below the league average of 27.5 percent, but also the lowest in baseball entering play Monday night.
Swing at strikes and passing on balls seems like the simplest strategy, yet few can actually abide by the rule. At some point in the season, Joyce will have an inevitable slide at the plate. It is then when we will find out how obedient he is to his new order.