CINCINNATI -- Much was said that managers in 2020 could ill-afford much patience with slumping players during an abbreviated 60-game season, because each game was too important. But when Reds designated hitter Jesse Winker was batting .087 on Aug. 3, manager David Bell was steadfast in sticking with him.
Winker has been one of baseball's hottest hitters since, and he’s on the hitting tear of his career. The lefty hitter slugged two more home runs for Cincinnati during an 8-1 victory over the Pirates on Friday night at Great American Ball Park.
"I was just trying to be competitive, stay consistent with my routine, be competitive at the plate and just try to put the bat on the ball. Hit the ball hard, and they got up and they got out," Winker said.
In his past 10 games, Winker is batting .586 (17-for-29) with hits in nine of them. He's riding a five-game hitting streak where he's 11-for-16 (.688) with five homers, two doubles and seven runs scored to raise his overall batting average to .365.
"It was an exciting game for us, we were ready. Lil' Winkie, he stayed hot. He's really, really coming into his own right now," starting pitcher Sonny Gray said. "You can tell he's starting to kind of figure out what makes him go in a good way. It's really fun to watch."
Gray allowed one earned run (Bryan Reynolds' fourth-inning solo homer) over 6 2/3 innings. The right-hander gave up five hits and one walk while striking out 10 batters. Nick Castellanos also launched his eighth homer of the season, a three-run shot in the seventh that broke the game open for Cincinnati.
Leading off the bottom of the second inning against Pirates starter Chad Kuhl, Winker went to the opposite field by lifting a 1-2 fastball for a homer to left field. It was a 1-1 game in the fourth inning when Joey Votto led off with a double to right-center field. Next was Winker, who drove a 2-1 curveball to right field for the two-run long ball and the first multihomer game of his career.
It was also Winker's first home run this season on a breaking ball. He only had one homer on a breaking pitch all of last season, and it came on on a slider. Winker entered the game hitting .267 with a .333 slugging percentage in at-bats ending on breaking pitches. He hit .195 on those last year, with a .295 slugging percentage.
"I think he has the ability, because of the type of hitter he is and the position he puts himself in to hit, to really be able to hit anything that’s over the plate, whether it’s a breaking ball, fastball, coming out of a left-handed pitcher’s hand, a right-handed pitcher’s hand and it really doesn’t matter right now," Reds manager David Bell said.
According to Statcast, Winker is on pace for the highest average exit velocity of his career this season; entering Friday’s game, it was 93.7 mph this season, compared to 89.1 in 2019. He also had his highest expected batting average (.348), weighted on-base average (.446) and expected weighted on-base average (.463). When the hits weren’t happening, hitting coaches Alan Zinter and Joe Mather told Winker to stay with his approach.
“I’ve fallen into the process in just being consistent with the preparation and how I’m going about my work every day,” Winker said before the game. “The results, they are kind of out of your control, especially with everything that’s in the game right now, whether it be the technology or just the talent that’s out there, day in and day out. You can do a lot of things right and not get a result, and that’s just the nature of the game.”
Another improvement that has emerged for Winker, especially on defense, is his speed. During Tuesday’s win, he was able to save runs from scoring by quickly cutting off hits and making good throws.
Winker will never be viewed as fast, but Statcast showed that his average sprint speed entering Friday was 26.3 feet per second -- up from 25.6 last season.
"When he’s had opportunities to play in the field, he’s playing great in the outfield," Bell said. "He’s running the bases really well. He’s running hard all the time. He’s playing great all around. It’s nice to see when guys work like that and get rewarded in the way he deserves, and he’s helping us win games."
Gray recalled the moment he thought Winker was heating up. It came, however, when he drew a walk on Aug. 5 against the Indians in Cleveland.
"I'm sitting in the dugout and I'm sitting on the bench watching, and he's on deck and he's super locked in," Gray said. "He has a really quality at-bat, he gets a 3-2 count, he takes a good pitch and he walks and he flips his bat and he goes to first and I'm like, ‘He's locked, he's locked, that dude's in a good spot right now.’ I remember it very vividly, and ever since then, he's carried us a little bit, let's be honest. It's great to see."