Jesse Winker battles a convergence of changeups and sliders
Jesse Winker experienced a league adjustment to his bat over a two-month stretch between mid-May and early July. First it was a heavy amount of changeups. Then the changeups gave way to sliders. He countered the changeups, now his task is battling sliders.
On May 15, Winker’s 15-game rolling changeup rate jumped north of 22%, nearly double the major league median of changeups seen (11%). “If a [changeup] is located, it’s tough to hit,” Winker said on May 24. “So I don’t necessarily want to sit changeup, but it’s starting to look like I may have to work that in every once in a while.” Part of Winker’s approach is what he calls “controlled aggression.” At the time he was working on things (he wouldn’t disclose what) with hitting coach Turner Ward and assistant hitting coach Donnie Ecker. He felt the only way to implement those changes was to go out and swing, be aggressive early in counts and look for certain pitches. His swing rate climbed to nearly 50% around the time his opposing changeup percentage peaked. This was evidence he might have started looking for early count fastballs to test his changes and pitchers countered by pitching backwards against him. Or it could simply have meant the league thought changeups were an effective pitch to counter his approach. Whatever the case, Winker started swinging more as a product of implementing these changes, potentially too far. “I’ve gotten a little excited in certain at-bats, I don’t know, as a player I still get pumped,” Winker says. “It’s part of the game. It’s learning to perfect that and control that.”
Embedded within Winker’s propensity to swing early in counts is the deployment of two approaches: an A-swing and a B-swing. Winker’s A-swing is simply his swing when he is feeling good, often used early in counts. “With my A-swing… I’m willing to take a chance. If I miss, ok, I still believe in myself with two strikes,” he says. If he feels challenged by a pitcher or just a little bit off at the plate, he won’t keep swinging with something that doesn’t work. This leads to his B-swing. “It’s still a full swing it’s just a little bit more controlled,” Winker says. “More of like a line-drive approach.” His heightened swing rate in the midst of heavy changeups meant deploying his A-swing more, creating higher risk and greater reward. For the most part, it seemed to have worked. Take for example the game the Reds played right after our May 24 conversation.
Winker faced sinker-changeup savant Kyle Hendricks. Hendricks threw 50% changeups versus Winker that day and Winker poked the fifth one he saw for a base hit. “As soon as I got on base, I was like wow, I was just talking about [changeups] in clubhouse,” Winker told me about our pregame conversation. In his fourth at-bat of the night, Winker faced another changeup specialist, Brad Brach. Brach threw Winker three changeups in a row on the outer third of the plate. Winker singled in a run on the third changeup he saw. This May 24 game marked a point along the downturn of changeups against Winker. His 15-game rolling changeup percentage currently sits at 8%, three percent below the league average. Winker adjusted to the league and the league pushed back by moving away from the changeups used to seemingly counter his aggression.
Right after I spoke with Winker in late May, opposing pitchers turned towards more sliders, creating an “X” between his changeup and slider usage trends from mid-May to the present day. His new nemesis became sliders, but his response to whether he noticed and contemplated a similar counter to the pitch like he did against changeups is unfulfilling. “To be honest with you, I don’t even really pay attention,” Winker said on July 16. “I wouldn’t even know what pitch is being thrown to me the most, I just lock in so much, try to hit fastballs.”
The first part of his response deviates from my changeup inquiry in May. There’s a good chance Winker knows what is being thrown to him, despite his deferral. His response could be a tactic to ease his mind in the wake of a league-wise slider-fest against him. He could also simply not have an opinion. Adopting either point is his prerogative. But Winker admitted he sees pitches off a slider machine roughly twice per week as long as it doesn’t break his daily routine. “I was listening to [Raisel] Iglesias the other day, he said it’s not a fastball league anymore,” Winker says. “If you get in a hitters count, they could throw whatever. That made a lot of sense to me.” Hitters using a slider machine is a common practice. Winker just happens to be seeing a lot of sliders after seeing few compared to the league.
Winker’s production versus changeups this season has improved. His wOBA has increased from .303 last season to .315 this season as pitcher’s fed him the pitch continually to start the season. His production against sliders has also increased slightly, from a .307 in 2018 to .311 this season, but metrics like Fangraphs Pitch Info pitcher values suggest Winker has become worse versus the pitch. This is likely a product of how they calculate Winker’s success versus the offering (pitch values are based off at-bats in which that pitch, in this case a slider, ends an at-bat). But while Winker produced more against the increasing flow of changeups early in 2018, the same can’t be said about the recent slider uptick.
Whether more reps on a slider machine helps remains to be seen. The frequency of his occasional spot atop the Reds lineup will likely depend on how he fares as sliders continue to creep north of 20% against him. This time around, aggression might not be the answer.