In Praise of Desmond Jennings

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - AUGUST 07: Outfielder Desmond Jennings #8 of the Tampa Bay Rays bunts against the Oakland Athletics during the game at Tropicana Field on August 7, 2011 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

You don't have to be a die-hard Rays fan to know that Desmond Jennings is pretty much awesome. Since being called up from the majors a few weeks ago, he's entrenched himself in the lead-off role and given us fans a show on a nightly basis. He's the lead-off hitter the Rays have been missing these past few seasons: he has great plate discipline; he is an exceptional bunter; he is arguably one of the fastest player I've seen; he can hit for average; and he even has a decent bit of pop.

And as if that wasn't enough, Jennings is off to the hottest start to a major-league career of any player in Rays history. I know it's still only 76 plate appearances, but I find the comparison somewhat entertaining:

Jennings_medium

(I don't think I'm forgetting anyone else here, but shout out in the comments if you think there are any other players that had hot starts.)

There is so much to like about Jennings, and really, I can't rave about him enough. While there's no way his power remains that good, he did have a .456 slugging (.180 ISO) in Triple-A this season and has hit a combined 15 home runs so far. An outburst like this is excessive, but there's no reason to believe Jennings can't provide some extra base power from the top of the lineup. Especially with the Trop's odd outfield walls and deep centerfield, he could get plenty of triples over the years here.

But one of the things I've been most encouraged about so far is Jennings' plate discipline. In many ways, Jennings reminds me of Crawford -- exceptional defense, fast, medium power, etc. -- but he is a much more complete hitter already than Crawford has ever been. So far this year, Jennings is swinging at only 20% of pitches outside the zone, and he rarely misses when he does choose to swing the bat; he has a 6% whiff rate, while the league average is 8.5%. These numbers may change as pitchers adjust to Jennings, plate discipline numbers are normally fairly reliable in small samples. A good eye is a good eye, and Jennings has one.

The one thing I can find to critique about Jennings' performance -- and believe me, this is extreme nitpicking right here -- is I wish he didn't strike out quite as often. He's striking out in 21% of his plate appearances right now --around what he did in the minors this season -- and while that's a respectable rate, I'm greedy. The more often you strike out, the more difficult it is to hit for a high batting average. In every at bat that you strike out, you're not putting the ball in play and giving yourself a chance to get a hit.

So if Jennings strikes out 20% of the time and has his balls in play fall for hits at a league-average rate, he's essentially a .265-270 hitter. Jennings is fast and can bunt for a hit well, so it's likely he can reach base on balls in play more often than the average hitter; he's more likely a .280 hitter...but if he struck out less often, he could be even better. Can you imagine having a .280+ hitter with an outstanding batting eye at the top of the lineup? It's almost too good to be true.

But like I said, the strikeouts are a minor deal. Jennings is already a very well-developed player, and he's shown us why he's been rated one of the best prospects in the majors the past few seasons. He'll hit a slump whenever pitchers finally catch up to him, but I have full faith that he will adjust. He's simply too good.

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