HEIGHT 6-3, WEIGHT 200, B/T: L/L
If you have followed the Reds for any appreciable amount of time, then the organization's ability to continually restock the farm system is remarkable. The organization's efforts on both the international market and via the draft have been highly successful and a major reason for the organization's MLB success, as they ensures both a steady flow of cost-effective talent for the major league roster and the availability of surplus assets for use in trade. Despite trading away three top prospects last offseason, the organization has yet to even feel their loss, instead continuing to methodically stack the farm system with impact talent.
Jesse Winker is next in line in this flow of talent. Winker is a bat-first player whose offensive upside made him one of the most sought after amateur players in the country and which could, ultimately, make him an impact hitter at the highest level of the sport.
DRAFT POSITION AND AMATEUR CAREER
The Reds selected Jesse Winker with the 49th over pick in the compensation round of the 2012 draft out of Olympia High School in Florida. The Reds received the pick as compensation for the loss of free agent Ramon Hernandez. Winker joins the growing ranks of Reds players selected from the state of Florida. After landing two top 5 prospects in the first three rounds of the 2011 draft (Stephenson and Cingrani), the Reds land two 6-10 ranked prospects in the 2012 draft (Travieso and Winker).
At Olympia High School, in his senior season, Winker hit .488 with an OBP of .649, 19 extra-base hits, including 3 homeruns, and 30 RBI in 30 games. Winker also played both ways at Olympia High School, pitching and playing 1b/OF. During his senior season, his primary defensive position was centerfield. Between the summer of 2010 and the summer of 2011, Winker improved his athleticism, transforming his projected professional profile from that of a mediocre defensive 1b/lf into a solid defensive rightfielder with a strong arm. Winker's brother, Joe, also an outfielder, was selected by the Dodgers in the 28th round of the 2011 draft, so baseball is obviously in the family genes.
While talking to the media about the selections of Winker and 57th overall pick Jeff Gelalich, senior director of amateur scouting, Chris Buckley, stated that "Although one is from high school and one is from college, they're kind of similar. They're corner outfielders, advanced hitters, and have solid tools."
For me, one of the more interesting aspects of selecting similar players with back-to-back picks is that both seem to have very good plate discipline, posting very good OBPs in their amateur careers. If both players reach their respective ceilings, then the Reds could have two valuable, disciplined hitters in the organization.
Winker's play in 2012 made him a Rawlings 1st Team All-American. In addition, Winker played on the USA National 18U team that won the gold medal at the 2011 Junior Pan American Games Tournament. A shortage of pitching pressed Winker into service and he was ultimately named the top pitcher at the Junior Pan Am Games.
Winker has had substantial amateur experience, both national and international, and has performed well at every stop. That experience obviously served him well as he hit the ground running in his professional career in 2012.
Winker signed his first professional contract quickly, forgoing his commitment to the University of Florida and giving him time to get his feet wet in the professional ranks. The Reds sent him to the rookie Pioneer League where he logged 62 games for the Billings Mustangs. Winker's advanced approach at the plate proved to be too much for the level of competition.
In 228 ABs, he posted a .338/.443/.500/.943 slash line with a 50/40 K/BB ratio, 16/3/5 2b/3b/HR totals, and 1 stolen base in 4 attempts. He hit line drives at a strong 22% clip, which, while good, probably wasn't enough to support his .410 BABIP, so some regression would be expected.
Winker's performance was strong enough to earn him a spot on the Topps Short Season-A/Rookie All Star team and set him up nicely to likely start out at low-A Dayton in 2013.
Winker stands with a slightly a wider than shoulder-width stance with a small pre-pitch bat waggle. As the pitch is delivered, he utilizes a one piece stride, drawing his foot back and bringing his knee up before striding forward. While the distance covered by the stride is short, the stride itself is lengthy. It operates as a timing mechanism, effectuates his weight transfer, and enables him to cock his hips to generate load in the swing.
When Winker's stride foot lands, he fires his hips, generating power in the swing. Winker's hip rotation is fast, supplying good power to the swing. When his stride foot lands, he firms up his front side, which acts as an anchor around which the force generated by his hips can rotate. He maintains good balance throughout his swing and gets good extension, finishing high with a picturesque one-handed follow-through. Winker makes consistent, hard contact and has the ability to barrel-up the pitch and drive the ball to all fields. His ability ranked him among the very best high school hitters in the 2012 draft class. Despite the strong and efficient lower body action, his initial upper body action arguably works against the generation of force by the lower body.
When his stride foot plants, Winker actually drops his back elbow and brings it forward, a move which is illustrated in photos 1 and 2 below:
The hitting position in the 2nd photo is somewhat unorthodox, as his upper body leans forward towards the pitcher and the early extension of his hands gives him the appearance of opening up early and coming over the top. A more traditional position is demonstrated in the John Olerud photo below:
Of the two, Olerud's position makes it easier to envision him staying back and letting his hips work before the upper body rotates. Winker's swing, on the other hand, involves an earlier upper body rotation, as it's more top-hand driven, likely an attempt to drive the swing with his dominant arm. Whenever I hit a golf ball or a baseball, my swing thought is always one of pulling with the lead hand. Obviously, both baseball and golf swings effectively utilize both hands, but I always get into trouble when I focus on the back hand, as it creates too much "push" in my swing. Winker's heavier top-hand action gives his swing added length in the back and the appearance of some push.
This heavy top-hand action creates a swing that potentially suffers from a measure of "bat-drag", as his back elbow gets out almost ahead of his back-hip. As you can see in the second Winker photo above, one of the consequences of bat-drag is that the front arm straightens out into an arm-bar.
As a result of Winker's early upper-body move, the differential between the shoulder and hip rotation is greater in the Olerud photo than in the Winker photo for the simple reason that Olerud hasn't opened up his front shoulder. This differential is largely what generates power in the swing. Further, the early top-hand action, and the arm-bar it creates, forces Winker to extend his arms earlier than is ideal, which can act as a drag on the rotational force created by the body.
To date, this top-hand heavy swing hasn't been a hindrance. In fact, he excelled in his first taste of professional ball. So, the other components of his swing may have developed in such a way as to effectively offset the drag on the force created by the lower body action. And, it's important to note that a mechanical issue isn't a flaw until it demonstrably impacts a player's performance level. That hasn't happened yet with Winker, though I wouldn't be surprised if it proved problematic in the future, but for now it's just something worth watching. However, bat-drag has other possible consequences for which he may be less able to compensate.
Bat-drag adds length to the swing, which is likely to move the hitter's contact-point forward. Instead of letting the pitch travel deep, the hitter is frequently forced to make contact with the pitch farther in front of the plate. In addition, bat-drag can impact the timing of the swing, changing when the bat head begins to whip through the zone. As a result, pitchers with better velocity may be able to exploit the longer swing, as the hitter will likely struggle to reach the contact-point in time to meet the pitch. To compensate, the hitter will have to start his swing earlier, which, in return, could make him more susceptible to good offspeed pitches.
Below is a photo of the hand position that potentially creates bat-drag in Winker's swing:
It'll be interesting to see if Winker's bat-drag causes problems against more advanced competition or if he has built a swing that effectively compensates for this issue. In short, it doesn't matter if his hands get into an unusual position early in the swing just so long as gets them into proper hitting position when needed. Years of repetition and muscle memory may have refined his swing to the point that this is a non-issue. No two hitters swing the bat the same way and potential mechanical issues may never even become detrimental to a hitter. For example, Todd Frazier has an arm-bar swing that only a mother could love, but he tamed his arm-bar to the tune of 19 home runs and a .273 batting average at the MLB level. As the sample size increases and the competition gets tougher, the same may prove true of Jesse Winker.
Here's a look at Winker's swing to see how he gets from the unusual hand-position (top photo) into good hitting position (bottom photo):
In the bottom photo, Winker is in solid hitting position, as he (1) uses a firm front side, (2) has strong hip rotation that generates enough force to drive his back foot up onto the toe, and (3) has his back elbow in fairly good position. In the second photo, the bat angle is pretty steep and the front arm is really straightened in an arm-bar position, extending the hands away from the body. This extension could reduce the ability of the hands and upper body to work in proper sync, creating inefficiency in the swing. All the movement occurring between the first and second photo is hand movement (the upper body maintaining a largely static position until the third photo), which is necessary to compensate for the earlier unorthodox hand position. Regardless of the need for this compensating movement, as long as he can consistently get into good hitting position at the point of contact, then the unusual early hand action will likely prove inconsequential. If, however, it takes him slightly longer to get from the top photo to the bottom photo because of his unusual hand-action, forcing him to move the point of contact forward, then it could prove problematic as he faces more advanced pitching.
Just for comparison sake, here's a photo the best hitter in baseball at a similar point in his swing:
In comparison to the second Winker photo above, you can see more flex in Votto's lead arm, the back elbow farther off the hip, a slightly less severe bat angle, and better synchronization between the upper-body and arms.
Part of what could drive Winker's success is strong pitch recognition and an advanced approach to hitting, which when combined enable him to both effectively utilize the entire field and control the strike zone. Getting a good pitch to hit is the most important aspect of hitting and far too few hitters do it well. Winker's selectivity will increase the probability of a successful outcome to his ABs. He should also be able to consistently supplement his batting average with strong on-base percentages, increasing the chances that he'll be a well-rounded, impact hitter at the MLB level.
If you watch Winker's swing, it's actually very fluid and easy on the eyes. It's only closer study that reveals the usual top-hand action. Still, "unusual" doesn't necessarily equate to "detrimental". And, to date, Winker has had a great deal of success at the plate, so, taken in total, his swing may prove to be effective and productive against even the most advanced competition, though I wouldn't be surprised if he struggles as a direct result of his unusual hand-action.
Here's a look at Winker courtesy Baseball America:
And, here's his draft video, courtesy MLB.com:
Overall, there are a great many things to like about Winker's swing and approach at the plate. Whether the early, unorthodox hand-action creates bat-drag for which he is unable to compensate remains to be seen, but the early professional results do nothing to dispel the high baseline performance level he established for himself in the amateur ranks.
DEFENSE, POSITIONAL VALUE, AND FINAL THOUGHTS
The sample size is too small to make any determinations about the quality of Winker's defense, but in some respects he reminds me of a wealthy man's Danny Dorn. I was, and am, a fan of Danny Dorn, so that comparison isn't a criticism, but the cautionary tale I learned from Dorn's career path is that a player who is average (or less) at a defensive position that resides at or near the bottom of the defensive-spectrum REALLY needs to have a special bat to carve out an MLB career. If your defensive value is neutral or negative, then you have to be a highly productive offensive player in order to create enough total value for your team.
Based on early reports, it sounds like Winker may have enough ability to be an average or better rightfielder. If true, that would slightly lessen the need for his bat to carry him to the majors. There are, however, questions about his foot speed and range, which could relegate him to leftfield down the road, reducing his overall value. On the other hand, if he reaches his offensive ceiling AND provides solid defense, then he could become a true impact player at the MLB level.
To date, Winker has done nothing but hit everywhere he's gone. His swing is fundamentally sound, and while he has an unusual component to his swing, it has worked very well for him to this point. Until it doesn't work, there's no real cause for concern. Still, it's worth watching and if he begins to struggle on a consistent basis, then it might be the root of the problem. But, there's a great deal to like about his offensive game (including a disciplined approach that should significantly raise his projected floor) and reason for optimism going forward. For now, he slots in at #7 on the list.