Joseph Patrick Wendle now 'The Big Bopper'

Hot start adds to infielder's lengthy list of nicknames

April 23rd, 2021

Joey Wendle has earned a handful of nicknames over the years.

Tyler Glasnow said he called Wendle “Best To Ever Do It” in 2018. Playing off a typo in an MLB Network graphic, Wendle took “Mendle” and ran with it, even putting it on the back of his Players’ Weekend jersey. Late last September, Kevin Kiermaier tweeted that Wendle was “the most underrated player in baseball.” When he comes through in a big moment, you might see the Rays’ Twitter account give him the full-name treatment: Joseph Patrick Wendle.

And manager Kevin Cash teased Wendle again after he hit a three-run homer in the ninth inning of their 6-4 win on April 2 in Miami, referring to the versatile infielder who hit 16 homers in his first 300 games as the Rays’ “Big Bopper.”

“I don't know if anybody calls me by that other than Cash,” Wendle said. “I don't know if it matters whether I like it or not, because he'll probably just continue to call me that.”

Whatever you want to call him, Wendle has been the Rays’ best hitter while playing his usual brand of strong defense and coming through with a handful of clutch hits during the first 19 games of the season. Hitting without batting gloves while playing in unfavorably cold weather in New York and especially Kansas City, Wendle went 12-for-25 with two homers and three doubles as Tampa Bay’s lineup came to life during a 5-1 road trip.

“He’s something else. I don’t know if he has any feeling in his hands at all at this point,” second baseman Brandon Lowe said. “From New York playing through here, it’s impressive that he can keep it rolling and be as good as he is with it.”

He’ll enter Friday’s series opener against the Blue Jays at Tropicana Field leading the Rays in hits (23), doubles (seven), runs (16), RBIs (15), average (.365), slugging percentage (.619) and OPS (1.007). He’s hit as many homers in 17 games this season as he did in 75 games two years ago. Outfielder Austin Meadows called Wendle’s start “special to watch,” singling out a two-strike single to left field on Tuesday as an example of how locked in his teammate seems to be.

Seeing Wendle hit well should not come as a surprise. The steady 30-year-old, lauded by teammates for his hard work and professional approach to the game, posted a 118 OPS+ in 2018, when he finished fourth in American League Rookie of the Year Award voting, and an identical mark last year.

All the necessary small-sample-size caveats apply: It’s early, he’s only had 67 plate appearances, he’s outperforming his expected statistics according to Statcast, and so on. But behind Wendle’s hot start are some minor adjustments and interesting numbers worth exploring.

Wendle said he’s picked up a different model Victus bat that feels comfortable in his hands: 34 inches, 31 1/2 ounces, birch, with a bigger flared knob. He’s also dropped his front foot in his left-handed batting stance, shifting his right foot more toward first base than the mound.

Some hitters will go through five or 10 different stances a year, changing so often that Wendle said they’ll use the phrase “new stance alert.” And it is common for hitters to try out different things at the plate, especially early in the season, in search of what feels most comfortable. But you can see the changes he’s made from his rookie season to last October to this past series in Kansas City.

“I would say, for the first time in a while, when I look at my swing, I go back on replay, it looks different to me than it has in years past,” Wendle said. “Whether that's good, bad or indifferent, I think, remains to be seen.”

So far, it’s been all good. 

According to Statcast, Wendle’s average launch angle has ticked up from 5.1 degrees last year to 8.6 degrees this year -- more in line with his career mark of 9.4 degrees. He’s also hitting the ball harder than he has in his previous years with the Rays, recording an average exit velocity of 91.3 mph compared to his career average of 88.6 mph. His barrel rate is currently sitting at 5.8 percent, noticeably higher than his career mark of 2.7 percent.

“I think him and [coaches] Chad [Mottola] and Ozzie [Timmons] have worked hard, and Joey has taken some adjustments to allow him to free up a little bit when he gets his pitches, to maybe look to drive it more than he has in the past,” Cash said. “That’s the way hitting is now; there's so much information or enough information that the harder you hit it, the better chance you have of having success. And Joey's hit a lot of balls really hard this season early on.”

Indeed, Wendle is hitting the ball harder and in the air more often. He’s spraying hits to all fields, smacking line drives to left and pulling homers to right, and he’s done that while lowering his ground-ball percentage to 40.4 percent and increasing his fly-ball rate to 30.8 percent. Put it all together, and you get the kind of season-opening stretch he’s enjoying.

“That’s kind of the goal every time you go up to the plate. Aside from situational hitting, you're going up there with the intent of looking to drive something,” Wendle said. “Now, whether you're able to make that happen or not is, a lot of times, just a product of how you're feeling, how you're seeing the ball, your timing. There's a multitude of factors that go into that.”

And a multitude of nicknames coming out of it, too.

“He just has like the grinder mentality. No batting gloves. He's just a salty dog,” Glasnow said, smiling. “I don't even know how to describe it. He's just that dude.”