Jesse Winker is far from a national star, but he could be sooner than later. While the Reds' outfield got a lot more name recognition when the club traded for Dodgers stars Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp last month, Winker might be the Cincinnati outfielder worth watching the most in 2019.
Let's explain why. Winker actually logged the Reds' first at-bat of 2018 as the team's Opening Day left fielder, striking out against Nationals ace Max Scherzer. That would turn out to be a rarity, since Winker would strike out just 45 more times before a right shoulder injury ended his season in late July. In fact, there were just five hitters in 2018 who walked more than they struck out over at least 250 plate appearances: Alex Bregman, Jose Ramirez, Carlos Santana, Joey Votto and -- you guessed it -- Winker.
Those are three MVP candidates from the last two seasons, plus a hitter in Santana who was better than his numbers showed in 2018, surrounding Winker on that list. The 25-year-old compiled a .405 OBP last year, a .375 OBP in his first cup of coffee in 2017 and owns a .398 OBP over six Minor League seasons, so his Votto-esque on-base ability is a proven skill. But Winker wasn't just a high-walk, high-contact hitter last season; his contact had more pop behind it than he had shown at any level before.
Over the 98 balls that Winker put in play as a rookie in 2017, he made hard contact (i.e. 95-plus mph exit velocities, per Statcast™) 32.7 percent of the time -- just a shade under the Major League average of 33.3 percent. By the time his season was cut short in 2018, that hard-hit rate was up to 42.2 percent. Winker also sliced his ground-ball rate by nearly 10 percent, and his 95.4 mph average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives was within MLB's top 15 percent alongside boppers like Kyle Schwarber, Cody Bellinger and Tommy Pham. Winker, also among the game's best 10 percent of hitters at making contact, now seems to be maximizing all of those balls in play -- though it might be premature to call him the most recent "launch angle" acolyte.
"Me and Don [Long, the hitting coach] have been working on some things. I don't necessarily try to lift the ball," Winker told MLB.com's Mark Sheldon in June. "I try to hit the ball hard where it's pitched. When I'm up with runners in scoring position and less than two outs, obviously, I'm trying to hit the ball in the air hard. But I'm not changing anything to do that. It's more of a mindset and pitch selection thing for me. I key on that and stay on top of it, and hit good pitches."
Whatever the approach, Winker got red-hot last summer and started hitting like some of the game's biggest stars. Looking through the prism of Statcast™'s all-encompassing expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) metric, which considers walks, strikeouts and quality of contact, Winker's .361 mark from the beginning of May onward was equal to Manny Machado. Beginning June 1, his xwOBA was one of the best in baseball:
Highest xwOBA, from June 1, min. 150 PAs
1. Luke Voit: .436
2. Christian Yelich: .424
3-T. Paul Goldschmidt: .404
3-T. Michael Trout: .404
5. J.D. Martinez: .402
6-T. Mookie Betts: .399
6-T. Nelson Cruz: .399
6-T. Justin Turner: .399
9. Kendrys Morales: .393
10. Winker: .390
If you're surprised to see Winker on this list, you should also know that his xwOBA over 60 plate appearances in July was .451, better than any full-time player in the game. That's a small sample, of course, but if Winker kept on that track instead of hurting his shoulder, he might have garnered a lot more headlines by season's end. Winker admitted this offseason that the shoulder injury -- a partial dislocation he suffered when he fell to avoid a line drive on the basepaths -- was actually the result of pain he'd been playing through for years. He became a significantly better hitter even while he was hurt.
"I've already done some exercises with my training and rehab that if I were to do those in prior years, my shoulder really would have been killing me," Winker told MLB.com in November. "So it's super refreshing to go do an exercise and my shoulder not hurt. It's awesome."
There's full confidence that Winker will be ready for next season, but it's not altogether clear if he'll once again be in Cincinnati's Opening Day lineup. Puig will likely play right and Scott Schebler is currently projected to start in center, leaving left field open for either Winker or Kemp, who's still owed $21.75 million this year. That contract might convince Reds management to give Kemp the first nod, and perhaps they even trade Winker (or Schebler) while they can deal from a position of depth. Wherever Winker ends up, all indications are that he could make a bigger impact than many might anticipate in 2019.