His 2015 was one to forget, as injuries limited him to 108 plate appearances. His slow start in 2016 made him, deservedly or not, a flashpoint for fans and journalists trying to explain a disappointing Rays record. While some were ready to dump him for the proverbial bag of balls, Desmond Jennings has had a pretty good month of June.
We all remember his excellent start in the majors. After his call up in 2011 he went on fire offensively and put up 2.4 fWAR in only 287 plate appearances. He hit .259/.356/.449, .355 wOBA, and 128 wRC+ while hitting 10 homers and stealing 20 bases. This led to unreasonable expectations of a speedy plus defender that would put up star offensive numbers over the following seasons.
And the ensuing seasons were pretty good. He posted 3-3.5 fWAR seasons from 2012-14. In his 2012-14 seasons he hovered around league average with the bat, but brought value with the glove.
A knee injury caused him to spend time on the disabled list early in 2015. His return in August was short lived as he bruised the same knee after only ten games. He would later miss the rest of the season due to a tooth infection. To say 2015 was a disappointing season for Jennings would be an understatement.
Entering 2016 many, including myself, called for him to be traded for anything you could get or even non-tendered, given his $3.3 million salary. Knee problems, especially for guys that rely on their speed, can be debilitating. His first two months of 2016 supported the argument that he wasn't worth keeping, with a slash line of .168/.237/.269, .227 wOBA, and 38 wRC+. Even if he could replicate Kevin Kiermaier’s defense in center field that level of offensive production is too pitiful to carry on a major league roster.
Injuries to Kiermaier, Brandon Guyer, Steven Souza, Jr., and Mikie Mahtook, however, kept Jennings employed. And suddenly he's producing. In June Desmond Jennings put up one of the better offensive months in his career. He hit .257/.360/.486, .364 wOBA, and 131 wRC+ with four homeruns.
Best career months (minimum 50 PA):
Holy cow his 2011 July-August run was amazing! He hit .354/.440/.646, .464 wOBA, and 201 wRC+ with 8 homers and 14 stolen bases over 153 plate appearances. That was a hell of a statement to make for your first extended run in the majors. That he helped the struggling Rays mount their run for the 2011 Wild Card makes it even more noteworthy.
The thing that really sticks out about his June 2016 is that it wasn’t heavily influenced by a really high BABIP. His .300 BABIP is around league average and only slightly above his .292 career BABIP. He also drew walks and brought the power that he wasn’t bringing earlier in the season.
He did it by being really effective against right handed pitchers as he hit .245/.365/.472 and hit one double, one triple, and three of his homers in 63 plate appearances.
His homers haven't been cheap, either, with exit velocities of 104.41 MPH (374.88 feet off Eduardo Rodriguez), 107.06 MPH (407.67 feet off Tyler Wilson), 107.02 MPH (409.43 feet off Archie Bradley), and 108.43 MPH (416.91 feet off Jake Barrett). The last one was the most impressive as it came on a 95.96 MPH fastball.
Does this mean we can put to rest the narrative that Jennings can't handle velocity? In the first two months of the season Jennings was 2 for 16 with 9 strikeouts in at bats ended with a 94+ MPH pitch; his only hits were singles. In June, however, he was 5 for 18 in these circumstances. He only struck out 6 times while hitting two doubles and a homer.
It is a small sample, but it speaks to a positive trend line. His walk rate went from 6.9% to 13.8% and having your strike zone in order is important for being locked in offensively. He also shaved a couple points off his strikeout rate as it went from 25.2% to 23.0% His .229 ISO in June isn’t to be expected as that well above his .148 ISO career average.
Of course, last night he was removed after his first plate appearance and is listed as day-to-day with hamstring tightness. Assuming this injury won't keep him out for long (perhaps an optimistic assumption these days), I'd like to hope that he has shaken off the rust after essentially missing all of the 2015 season. If he stays healthy, Jennings could establish himself as the solid player we saw in 2012-2014.