When the Rays started the 2018 rebuild season, they had several names in competition to earn the starting second baseman’s job: in-house were utility infielder Daniel Robertson and down on his luck Brad Miller, and added to the competition were cup-of-coffee rookies Ryan Schimpf and Joey Wendle, as well as veterans Micah Johnson and the newly acquired prospect Christian Arroyo. You could also consider shortstop Willy Adames as part of that list, as he got a long look in spring.
The competition was wide open too. Daniel Robertson had not yet revamped his swing, Brad Miller was more recently a first baseman, the new names were unknown entities, and other veteran options like Neil Walker chose greener pastures in New York over the playing time opening in Tampa Bay.
As it turned out, the dark horse may have been the front runner all along.
Joey Wendle came over with whispers of Mark Ellis spiriting his glove (whispers loud enough that even Wendle heard them before he was traded), and quickly showed to have a swing the Rays brass surely remembered seeing in John Jaso.
Jaso was a player the Rays were slow to trust would be productive, and after he was traded he went on to post a 143, 121, and 122 wRC+ in three seasons before the Rays then brought him back. Jaso did not disappoint either, putting up a 135 wRC+ for the Rays with the same swing that always seemed a bit odd. And now the Rays have that swing on their staff again.
Here’s a side by side of those two swings:
Baseball America had no praise for Jaso’s swing, describing it as “rather unconventional” after his big league debut, and prior to his debut saying it was, “far from textbook and could even be described as ugly,” but noting, “he makes it work with his outstanding plate discipline and willingness to battle every time he steps in the box.”
A decade later, with the same swing, Joey Wendle received higher praise, with various reports from Baseball America describing a “natural” and “advanced feel for hitting.” More descriptively in 2015 they wrote, “He has a handsy swing that allows him to hit balls in all quadrants of the strike zone, and described his wrists as “strong enough to give him some sneaky power.”
Sneaky power is generous for a player with 9 career home runs in 149 games (following our comp, Jaso never had more than 10), and “advanced feel” must be limited to the barrel, because his walk rate remains a career 6% (Jaso had double digits there).
Baseball evolves, as do player evaluations, but as a type Wendle draws a variety of reviews and not all of them are positive. I’ve spoken to several writers outside the Rays market on whether Joey Wendle has proved himself as a major league regular and the responses have varied from “obviously [he’s] been good,” to “Johnny Giavotella.”
There’s also a question as to whether he’s even trending in the right direction, and again it depends on your perspective. A prolonged hitting slump after a hot start mired Joey Wendle’s numbers but on the season he’s up to a 112 wRC+ and .332 wOBA. And you can see that improvement as either a product of two hot months in April and July...
Or as a steady climb to show that he belongs...
Part of that improvement is a better command of the strikezone. Wendle’s slump coincided with pitchers figuring out how to strike him out, and that’s something he has evidently overcome in the near term, but the walk rate is still less than ideal for a major league regular...
And it’s being a “major league regular” that brings us to the point of this thought exercise.
John Jaso was also 28 when he finally broke out as a successful major league hitter, but his walk rates were strong enough to keep pitches in the zone. Joey Wendle is walking at an average rate of 6% (currently), which is already the best he’s shown at any level in his career. His low was a 3.6% walk rate in Triple-A.
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.
The only non center fielders and short stops on the list are players struggling (Matt Duffy, Marcel Ozuna) or not succeeding at the plate (rookie utility prospect David Fletcher). For Wendle, this is him at his best. His best has resulted in a lead in position player WAR among rookies, but there’s a valid question as to whether his best keeps him in the majors.
For that appraisal we turn to defense, where Wendle plays the position of greatest depth in the Tampa Bay Rays system: second base.
Does he have shades of Mark Ellis in his glove? To date, no — as tabulated by Fangraphs, Wendle’s 4 Defensive Runs Saved are a far cry from what may be the best defensive second baseman of all time — but his high baseball IQ has resulted in some impressive diving stops and turned double plays that should stick out in the mind of anyone who’s watched him play.
Manning a position not rated difficult among all the positions available, Wendle has dazzled.
Part of that is great defensive positioning, part of that is Wendle knowing exactly what he’s capable of and doing it to perfection. But at a position log jammed by Daniel Robertson, Christian Arroyo, Nick Solak, and helium prospect Vidal Brujan, it’s a tall order to say Wendle can stop the promotion of more talent into his place. At least with confidence.
And it’s for that reason the Rays have already given Wendle and fellow 2B Brandon Lowe almost 200 innings in the outfield.
Perhaps Wendle has more to offer than we’ve seen from his 28-year-old self. Perhaps he can follow in Jaso’s footsteps and become the atypical DH no one expects to flourish. Perhaps Wendle can use his high baseball IQ to man a competent utility role on future iterations of the Tampa Bay Rays. Or perhaps Wendle’s stalwart defense and contact oriented approach are enough to lock him in at second base as the man the coaches and pitchers trust most.
With so many highly rated prospects on the way, I suspect Wendle’s future will be tied to his walk rate as much as his ability to be a utility man for the Tampa Bay Rays, but if John Jaso has taught us anything, it’s that Joey Wendle’s future has not been written.