HEIGHT: 6-2 WEIGHT: 210
Jesse Winker has a chance to be a very special hitter. That possibility exists, in large part, because he possesses the most important attribute in hitting.
Football genius Bill Walsh once defined "functional intelligence", which he viewed as the big key to success at the quarterback position, as follows: "[t]he ability of a player to organize and isolate different categories of tasks that he must perform in a particular situation is commonly referred to as functional intelligence. This ability is the key to being able to instantly process information in highly stressful situations."
The more and more I consider hitting, the more convinced I become that the most important component of hitting is the capacity to absorb and process meaningful information. Hitting is just like playing quarterback, the ability to process information being the most is the most important attribute of both.
Jesse Winker has that ability. A tremendous amount of it.
In his book "The Sports Gene", author David Epstein explains what separates those who can hit at the Major League level from the rest of humanity. It's not what most of us might think. To start, it's not reaction time. In fact, after watching hitters like Albert Pujols flail away helplessly against elite softball pitcher Jennie Finch, Epstein theorizes that great hitters have normal, ordinary, average reaction times. Instead, Epstein points to something else as the real key for great hitters:
"[Hitters] pick up on cues from the [pitchers'] bodies before their pitch. So for a pitcher, without knowing it, the hitters are actually focusing in on the motion of the pitcher's shoulder and the pitcher's torso and hand. And then, as soon as the ball is released, [hitters focus] on what is called the flicker, which is a flashing pattern that the [ball's] red seams make as they rotate. And it's only picking up those anticipatory cues that allows the hitter to hit the ball."
Hitters like Pujols couldn't read the unfamiliar, underhand motion and arm action cues of Jennie Finch. They can, however, after much experience and practice, read the pitching motions and cues of pitchers like Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander.
This ability reveals itself in Jesse Winker through his calmness at the plate. He looks very comfortable in the box simply tracking pitches. He looks calm because he can process information very quickly, allowing him to recognize pitches and effectively control the strike zone.
Jesse Winker is in complete control at the plate.
Jesse Winker had an up-and-down age 20 season. He split his time between destroying high-A pitching for the Bakersfield Blaze and scuffling against double-A pitching for the Pensacola Blue Wahoos. He missed a couple of weeks with a concussion after colliding with an outfield wall in high-A and suffered a broken wrist after his promotion to double-A before rebounding in a dominating turn in the Arizona Fall League.
|Jesse Winker is #1.|
Courtesy: Paul Sancya (AP)
For the Blue Wahoos, Winker found things a bit more challenging. He posted a slash line of .208/.326/.351/.677 with a 15.2% BB%, 23.9% K%, and 2 homers in 92 PAs. It felt like his ABs were still high quality and his balls-in-play were pretty solid, so there might have been a bit of poor hit luck at work in his uninspiring numbers.
Regardless, he likely would have improved on those numbers, but his season was cut short by an injury sustained in a car accident. In the accident, Winker suffered a partially torn tendon in his right wrist.
To make up for lost development time and to end the season on a positive note, the Reds sent Winker to the Arizona Fall League. For the Surprise Saguaros, Winker got right back on the hittin' track, posting a familiar looking line of .338/.440/.559/.999 with 16.7% BB%, 20.2% K%, and 3 homers in 84 PAs. Most importantly, he had no lingering issues with his concussion or wrist.
In addition to consistently strong walk rates and the ability to control the strike zone, Winker also flashes power to all fields. Given that the biggest concern on Winker's offensive game revolves around his power production, it's very encouraging that he is already flashing opposite-field power.
If you look at Winker's 2014 spray chart, then you can see that he hit four of his homers to leftfield. In addition, for the Blue Wahoos he was robbed of a homer by a jumping leftfielder and also hit a homer that just twisted left of the leftfield foul pole, so he could easily have added two more opposite field homers to his 2014 tally.
|Courtesy of MLBFarm.com|
In light of his opposite-field power, it's interesting that Winker has a tendency to pull ground balls, but he does so to such an extent that he even saw a few infield shifts with Pensacola. He obviously has the ability to hit to all fields, so the pulled ground balls may speak to a tendency to "roll over" outer-half offspeed pitches. This tendency feels like it could be corrected, if necessary, by a small tweak in approach, rather than requiring any type of serious mechanical overhaul.
On the downside, Winker's impressive approach didn't always hold up at double-A, where the caliber of opposing pitchers was significantly higher. On a few occasions, Winker took two fastballs for called strikes and ultimately ended up flailing away at a 2-strike breaking ball out of the zone for the strikeout. Obviously, giving away count-leverage like that is atypical of his overall approach and was probably the result of struggling to adjust to more talented opposing pitchers. It doesn't strike me as a long-term concern, rather simply the need to continue making refinements to his stellar approach as he logs more Plate Appearances and sees more advanced pitches.
One other interesting note on Winker's 2014 season is how successful he was against southpaws. In fact, you could argue that he actually had reverse platoon splits:
vs. RHP: .314/.409/.569/.977 in 153 ABs
vs. LHP: .327/.471/.615/1.086 in 52 ABs
vs. RHP: .193/.313/.316/.629 in 57 ABs
vs. LHP: .250/.360/.450/.810 in 20 ABs
That's just another example of how complete of a hitter Jesse Winker is, lefties don't give him any trouble.
The best swings generate maximum functional force without losing control over that force. The best swings are a combination of quick/compact and powerful. Sacrifice too much force for control and you won't be an impact hitter. Sacrifice too much control for force and you won't be able to consistently put the bat on the ball. The best swings find and strike the right balance between the two.
Let's start with a look at Jesse Winker in action, courtesy of "Christopher Blessing" on YouTube:
In his pre-pitch stance, Winker uses a conventional setup with a slightly wider than shoulder-width stance and hands held just above shoulder-level. Winker's stride is a one-piece, leg kick type stride that operates as a timing mechanism and allows him to get his weight into his back hip. He lifts his front knee and draws his front foot back before taking a sizable stride forward.
As he strides, Winker simultaneously loads his hands, using a fairly small movement to load up, dropping his hands down to shoulder-level while drawing them back slightly. The starting position of Winker's hands combined with the load occasionally gives Winker's swing the appearance of an arm-bar, as his lead arm reaches almost full extension. However, as demonstrated by Todd Frazier (proud owner of a more extreme version), the arm-bar isn't an issue if you can make the needed in-swing adjustments to properly handle the inside pitch. And, despite the slightly deeper hand position, Winker manages to still be short and quick to the point of contact.
Winker effectively drops the back elbow into the back hip, syncing the upper body and arms to the rotational power generated by the core. Once he drops the back elbow into the back hip, the firing of the hips powers the swing and that core rotation ultimately delivers the swing to the pitch.
Winker also does a nice job of firming up the front side, which anchors the swing and allows the generated force to both rotate effectively around the body and efficiently transfer to the swing.
Overall, Winker has a smooth, balanced swing that generates good power and that he can control to generate consistent contact. It's an aesthetically pleasing, and highly productive, swing. He's a pure hitter.
One thing I have noticed is that Winker's stride has a tendency to leak to the first base side. It's an easy fix (if a fix is even necessary), but his stride frequently doesn't go straight to the rubber. It's not anything close to stepping in the bucket, but it does open up slightly. I'm not sure if it's (1) a conscious choice by Winker, (2) a subconscious adjustment to work around his arm-bar and better handle inside pitches, or (3) just something into which he unknowingly and detrimentally slipped. You can see it here on the replay from the centerfield camera, courtesy "minor league baseball" on YouTube:
Obviously, since that swing produced a long home run, it's not something that hampered him, but it's unusual and interesting to note. I suspect it's a small, on-the-fly adjustment related to his slight arm-bar and also wouldn't be surprised if leaking to the first base side also explains his tendency to hit ground balls to the right side. If he's leaking towards the first base side to increase his inner half coverage, then he's probably a bit more susceptible on the outer half.
Of course, Winker has the type of ability (both mental processing of information and physical ability) to effectively cover both sides of the plate, but he might have to refine his approach a touch as he climbs the ladder. It's difficult to stay on-and-through an outer-half pitch in order to drive it to the opposite field if your body is leaking in the opposite direction. So, it probably bears watching as he faces increasingly better pitchers who can consistently work to both corners of the plate.
Still, I've noted the unusual arm-bar/hand path move since I first wrote up Jesse Winker, but, as I said then, it's not a flaw until it impacts his performance. To date, it has not and with each step up the ladder it becomes less and less likely that it ever will. Still, I've always liked the below comparison between the hand paths of John Olerud and Jesse Winker, both strong, well-rounded hitters who have different ways of getting their hands/arms from load to the point of contact:
Overall, Winker is a very fundamentally sound hitter. He generates very good force with his body rotation and efficiently transfers it to the baseball. He has the hand-eye coordination necessary to consistently get the barrel of the bat on the ball, which ensures hard contact. And, he processes the information necessary to identify pitches and control the zone. All of which adds up to a complete hitter who generates (1) power, (2) batting average, and (3) on-base percentage, respectively.
All that said, let's just sit back and enjoy this clip of Jesse Winker from the AFL, courtesy of "Big League Futures" on YouTube. I'd suggest doing so with the volume on, as the crack of the bat isn't to be missed:
Not too shabby. It's a swing that gets to the hitting zone quickly and stays there a long time.
DEFENSE PLAY AND RUNNING
There isn't a ton to say about Winker's defense and running, as they aren't areas of strength. His hit tool is clearly his carrying tool and what drives his value as a prospect. That said, I think Winker is a bit underrated on defense.
Winker isn't a burner, but he has some athleticism and has made a number of good diving catches. He's unlikely to have plus-range, but I suspect it'll be a bit better than many expect and he'll make all the plays he can reach. His arm seems solid-average in terms of both strength and accuracy.
On the bases, Winker is limited by his underwhelming foot speed, but he's a smart and opportunistic baserunner who will steal or take the extra base when the opportunity presents itself.
Overall, these areas aren't going to be value-drivers for Winker, but I don't think they'll act as real drags on his value, either.
I haven't checked any other lists, but the sense I get is that Jesse Winker is still a bit underrated. Winker's pure hitting ability is rare and valuable in-and-of-itself, but when you factor in the declining offensive environment around Major League Baseball, it's difficult to see how Winker isn't one of the most valuable and promising prospects in all of baseball. Other prospects may have more value-drivers, but it's difficult to imagine many better prospects from purely a hitting perspective.
In the book Moneyball, someone in the A's organization floated the notion that prospect Mark Teahen "could be another Jason Giambi." Obviously, hindsight frequently does violence to prediction, but I'll go out on a limb here and say that Jesse Winker could be another Joey Votto.
For now, he has to settle with being the #1 prospect on this list.