A few weeks ago, we looked at some of the broader, team-wide trends from the Rays 2018 season. We’re now going to start looking at some trends from the 2018 Rays on a player-by-player level.
Let’s begin with the man whom the Philadelphia Flyers named their mascot after... (Ok, they didn’t actually do that, but Sir Grits A Lot certainly could have earned the nickname Gritty in 2018). Also, with those jokes out of the way, here’s more on Joey Wendle and “girt” from earlier this year.
Before the 2018 season, Joey Wendle was not a name that many would have slotted among the key components to any likely success the Rays were to have in the season to come. The former Cleveland and Oakland “prospect” had never cracked a top-100 prospect list and at 27 years old, there wasn’t a whole lot of intrigue.
Wendle was coming off a season in which he got only eight games at the major league level and was solid but not extraordinary at Triple-A. He slashed .285/.327/.429 in 118 Triple-A games for the year.
As the 2018 year began, however, Mr. Wendle won over more and more Rays fans along the way, ending the season with a seemingly near-100 percent approval rating. We here at DRB even honored him in our own quirky way, saying his shirtsy should top your Christmas List.
Despite the lovefest, I have been hesitant to fully hop on board. A lot of his production seemed to be smoke and mirrors, and even as the island grew less and less populated, I held onto my stake in “Joey Wendle is not a long-term thing” island.
Joining me on the deserted island has been site runner Danny Russell, who wrote that “Wendle’s future will be tied to his walk rate”:
Joey Wendle’s best skill at the plate is his contact, and without the promise of a walk rate to bring pitches to him, it’s fair to wonder how long his success at the plate can last. There’s simply not a lot of dudes with that hitting profile who stick in the majors unless they play an elite position of need.
You might also be in the “plate discipline above all else” camp. If so, I have great news: what Joey did in the second half, in terms of plate discipline, was wildly impressive.
But let’s hit rewind for a second.
During that 2017 season, spent mostly at Triple-A, Wendle was a prototypical slap hitter. He put the ball into play first and foremost, sporting a solid strikeout rate of 16.1 percent but a walk rate of just 3.7 percent that put a lot of heavy lifting on his batting average in terms of his ability to get on base.
In the first half of the 2018 season, the story was much the same.
Wendle hit .283 with a 22.6 percent strikeout rate, 5.7 walk rate and a .331 OBP that all added up to a wRC+ of 100—better than Rays fans might have hoped for, but nothing crazy. Plus, once his .355 BABIP inevitably regressed at least a little bit, he’d be doomed.
However, in the second half, Wendle did anything but slow down.
Wendle slashed .321/.381/.486 for an awesome 136 wRC+. He cut his strikeout rate nearly in half, going from that 22.6 percent K-rate in the first half to a paltry 11.6 percent in the second half. He also increased his walk rate, going from 5.7 percent to 8.0 percent, and all of it came with a nearly identical batting average on balls in play.
Luck wasn’t a factor.
Among qualified hitters in 2018, only nine batters struck out at a rate of 11.6 percent or lower, and of those nine, only three boasted a walk rate above 8.0 percent, which were Wendle’s second half rates.
Those three names offer some mighty tasty comparisons for Wendle, even if they’re a bit unfair.
One of them was Nick Markakis in an age-34 season that is going to have a 30-for-30 documentary produced on it sooner than later. Another was Jose Ramirez, who boasted a walk rate nearly twice what Joey Wendle was doing, even in the second half and he offers more pop than seems worthwhile.
The third name is a road already trodden: Ben Zobrist.
Zobrist is a comp that has been tossed out by some of the more aggressive Wendle supporters (and scoffed by those — like me — who just don’t see it as much). And although I cannot fully see it, I believe it’s interesting to note that Zobrist was also a late bloomer, just shy of his 27th birthday when he was able to make the necessary plate discipline improvements to become a great hitter.
We humans are bound to look for patterns where they don’t actually exist—and I still want to see a few more months of this—but let’s just say I’m not scoffing as hard at those Zorilla comps as I was a few months ago.