When Joey Wendle made the Opening Day roster in spring of 2018, DRaysBay managing editor Danny Russell was distraught. Wendle wasn’t just a slick-fielding utility infielder who probably couldn’t hit: he was a symbol of everything that was wrong with a Rays team that had lost its way and given up on its window.
The Rays had sent catcher Jonah Heim to Oakland as the PTBNL to acquire Wendle, but in Danny’s mind they had chosen Wendle over Corey Dickerson. They had broken up a core that should have competed but never quite did, and rolled with Wendle instead.
“What’s a Joey Wendle?”
We’d heard the Mark Ellis comp thrown around. Ellis had been another Oakland infielder who didn’t hit a ton, but he was the consensus best defensive second baseman of his time. A laughable comp. PR spin. If Wendle was Ellis, Oakland would have known it and held him for a bigger trade. Also, there’s a name for a +10 defensive second baseman: a shortstop. If Wendle was Ellis he should have been playing shortstop.
I laughed at Danny and told him he didn’t need to spend his energy thinking about Wendle. The Rays were rebuilding. Their Opening Day second baseman did not matter. He’d go the way of Cesar Puello soon enough.
We were both wrong.
Joey Wendle hit .300/.354/.435 over 545 plate appearances in 2018. He posted 10 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), mostly at second base but also at third, shortstop, and in the outfield. He was worth nearly four Wins Above Replacement (WAR), and placed third in Rookie of the Year voting. He should have been second (over Miguel Andujar) — an assertion which at the time caused Yankees to melt down online but which is rather clear in retrospect.
I don’t think any player has caused as much bitter debate between writers during my 12-year tenure in the DRaysBay community as the mild-mannered Wendle.
First was disbelief with a side of annoyance. Nothing bothers an older millennial, upper middle class, politically liberal, sabermetrically savvy baseball fan like a small White player succeeding on an inflated BABIP, and in 2018 Wendle ran a .358. We were raised in the sport on Fire Joe Morgan and we know an Eckstein when we see one — the player who might be decent at baseball but who, because of the way he looks and the way he plays, draws over-the-top praise from old White writers. We decry the Ecksteins because we don’t want to be Bill Plaschke and deep down we fear that we are.
Danny thought Wendle’s batting line was a BABIP mirage. I laughed at his discomfort and told him to enjoy the ride. Of course it wouldn’t continue, but, like, lighten up dude. There weren’t that many bright spots in the first two thirds of 2018. And surely the Rays wouldn’t fall in love with Wendle just because he “played the game the right way.” They weren’t run by Plaschke.
Bat talent is a funny thing because it can look very different depending on the decisions a player makes about his swing. Putting aside the ability to control the zone and the willingness to take a walk, bat talent is a relationship between power and whiffs. Swing harder and you’ll whiff more. Prioritize contact and you’ll hit the ball less hard. A batter can often shift his position on the spectrum in search of the optimal combination but only rarely does he elevate his overall bat talent.
It wasn’t that Wendle elevated his talent in the latter part of 2018, but he shifted to a portion of the spectrum where that talent was visible; where it was expressed in K%, a relatively less noisy statistic. I can still hear Danny say it.
“‘No-power, no-walk second baseman’ isn’t a profile that succeeds in the majors.”
That’s true. But it’s also prospect talk. There’s not a lot to like in Wendle’s 2017 stat line as a 27 year old in Triple-A. But what do you do when that no-power no-walk second baseman gets his chance in the majors and rakes? What do you do when the translation doesn’t play to script, and the 28 year old rookie hits better against major league pitchers than he had against minor league ones? When it turns out he’s not “no-walk,” just “a little bit lower than average walk?” And he’s not “no-power,” just “a little bit lower than average power?” And a close study of his plummeting strikeouts suggests that actually this guy has bat talent?
Do you hang on to the profile, or do you believe in the production?
If there’s one thing baseball statisticians are bad at it’s projecting the jump from minor to major leagues; and if there’s one thing they’re good at it’s quantifying the impact of major league production. And no matter how much it may look like David Eckstein, 4 WAR is success.
On April 24 of 2019, an inside 95 mph Jake Diekman fastball caught and fractured Wendle’s wrist. He gamely took his base, but never entirely recovered that season. The following pandemic-shortened season, he had his best year at the plate, with a 117 wRC+ (meaning that he was 17% better than league average). It was only 184 games, and the BABIP was still high (.338). Still we argued.
He replicated that line nearly exactly during the first half of 2021, before fading down the stretch (performing 17% above league average in the first half, 9% below average in the second). But another thing happened in 2021, which is that Wendle played 200 innings at shortstop. The Rays faith in Wendle, that he would be able to cover shortstop, enabled them to trade Willy Adames for necessary pitchers. Long-term the shortstop position needed to be opened for rookies Wander Franco and Taylor Walls, but having Wendle around raised the short-term floor.
“No-power, no-walk second baseman.”
Joey Wendle doesn’t really have a third-baseman’s arm, and routine throws sometimes go offline since he needs to put more behind them than a prototypical fielder at the hot corner. Shortstops need an arm, too. But Wendle’s first step, slick footwork, and soft hands made up for what he lacked in arm strength. He was good at third base and adequate at short. Turns out the next Mark Ellis could have been playing shortstop all along. And Joey Wendle, for his performance in 2021, was nominated for a gold glove . . . at third base.
“What’s a Joey Wendle?”
Now 32, that arm isn’t getting any stronger, although I think Wendle has a better sense than most of how to compensate for his limitation. There’s a hole in his swing which right-handed pitchers have increasingly exploited. If he could learn to lay off the backfoot slider he might become a perennial All-Star. If he could learn to do that and also pull those sliders that stay in the zone we might be talking MVP. But so far he hasn’t, and everybody knows it.
He’s not the type of player you build a team around. But since 2018 he’s been the 83rd best position player in baseball by fWAR, just behind Joey Votto and ahead of Giancarlo Stanton and Brandon Belt.
Eventually a player hangs around the majors long enough that they transcend their profile and become the profile.
Joey Wendle is the living embodiment of the value of a roster space. It’s worth giving guys a shot, because sometimes it turns out that they can hit like a Joey Wendle, and run like a Joey Wendle, and field like a Joey Wendle. And if they can do all of that, they will win their team baseball games.