CINCINNATI -- Jesse Winker’s 2021 season felt like a would-be great story that lacked a fitting conclusion. It has made the Reds left fielder more determined for a more complete and satisfying 2022.
In the first half of the past season, Winker was ranked among baseball’s best hitters. He enjoyed not one, but two three-home run games. Fans voted him to be a National League starter in the All-Star Game for the first time. By mid-August, however, an intercostal injury stopped everything, and he finished the season on the injured list.
“Honestly, the season ended, personally, the exact way I never wanted it to end,” Winker said before Cincinnati’s final 2021 game on Oct 3.
Winker, 28, batted .305/.394/.556 and set career high marks with 24 home runs, 32 doubles, 77 runs and 71 RBIs. Because of his injury, he was limited to 110 games -- and only one after Aug. 15. Cincinnati struggled without Winker down the stretch, going 18-24 -- as it faded from the second NL Wild Card spot.
In the previous offseason, Winker spent considerable time working to improve his footwork, speed and defense -- in addition to hitting. Manager David Bell was hopeful that Winker would keep making progress.
“Continuing to build on what he has done in the past because he has gotten better in every area of the game,” Bell said. “Sometimes you can’t avoid injuries, nothing you can do about it. At least doing everything he can in his power. I’ve really seen Jesse grow in all those areas. He’s really committed to being healthy, being in the best shape he can be in, as fast as he can be, quick as he can be, strong. It’s worked and he has shown a lot of improvement in every area.”
Before the injury, suffered during an Aug. 15 win vs. the Phillies, Winker was particularly hot at the plate again after a mid-summer lull. He was batting .389 with five homers in 20 games with a .778 slugging percentage.
In a risky move, Winker cut short his rehab assignment with Triple-A Louisville after only two games and was activated for a Sept. 17 game vs. the Dodgers.
During his fourth plate appearance, Winker re-aggravated the intercostal injury with a swing just before being hit by a pitch. He exited the game and went back on the IL the following day to finish the season.
“I don't regret anything. Not at all,” Winker said of the failed return attempt.
Despite having a season where he broke out as one of the top left-handed hitters in the game, Winker could not enjoy the achievements nearly as much.
“I'll be proud of a season when, personally, when I'm on the field in the last regular-season game and I'll be more proud of it if we're holding up a trophy at the end of it,” he said. “I just feel like I'm trending in the direction I've always believed I'm going in. It's definitely an incomplete season if I'm ending on the IL and as a team we're not in the playoffs.
“I wouldn't say there's anything memorable from it. This injury and everything how it finished, it's leaving a bad taste, personally. I can't really get past that right now.”
These types of season endings have become too familiar for Winker and the Reds.
In 2019, Winker missed the final 39 games with a cervical strain. While a NL Rookie of the Year candidate in 2018, he tore the labrum in his right shoulder and needed season-ending surgery.
“I think there's better things that I can do, personally, day in and day out to prevent this from happening again,” Winker said. “There's things that I need to be better at, obviously. I look forward to kind of figuring that out. We have a great plan set for the offseason and it's just my job to execute it. I plan on doing that. It's frustrating man, it sucked to be honest with you.
“I can just go all in on whatever I can do to prevent anything going forward. It's kind of getting old for me as well, being hurt all the damn time. It's something that I definitely want to do my part in figuring out and developing a better routine.”