Matt Joyce is off to a hot start for the Rays this season. He leads all of baseball with a .367 average to go along with 8 home runs. His .459 wOBA (think OPS but better, .335 is average) is second in the American League behind only Jose Bautista.
Based on those numbers, and his solid defense, Joyce has already been worth 2.7 Wins (WAR) to the Rays this season. That is tied as the second most valuable player in the AL so far this season.
Is this all a fluke? Did Joyce just need regular playing time? Or are we seeing a new-and-improved sweet swing? Maybe a little of all three.
So far in 2011, we are indeed seeing a different approach at the plate for Joyce. To start, he has been much more aggressive. In 2010, Joyce walked 15.3 percent of the time. This season, that number is down to 10.8 percent.
But that agression is being unleashed in a controlled manner. In 2010 Joyce swung at 25.0 percent of pitches out of the strike zone. That number is nearly identical this season (25.6%). However, Joyce is really starting to attack pitches in the strike zone. Last year he swung at 67.6 percent of strikes. This year he is swinging 73.1 percent of the time.
And when Joyce does swing the bat, he has also changed the manner in which he is attacking the ball. He is no longer trying to lift everything. In 2010, nearly half (48.8%) of his balls in play were flyballs. This year, his flyball rate is all the way down to 37.3 percent. And as a result, his linedrives are up to a whopping 26.3 percent.
Joyce is also using more of the field. Compare these two spray charts. Notice that the groundballs are still clustered between first and second base. But many more balls to the outfield this season are traveling to center and left fields. In other words, Joyce is no longer trying to jack home runs on every swing.
White squares with green borders are base hits. Black squares with a red border are outs...
Of course, he has been a little lucky this season. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is .418. But it is not that unusual considering how many line drives he is hitting. Based on his 26.3 line drive rate, his BABIP should be closer to .390. That is still very good and not that far below where it is now. Lucky? A little bit. Good? A lot.
So, is this all just a new philosophy? Or is this newfound success being realized because Joyce is finally getting more playing time? Probably a little of both. When Joyce was seeing limited playing time, there was probably more pressure to be more productive, leading to his pull-tendancies.
This is all very reminiscent of Carlos Pena’s breakout season in 2007. However, for Pena, he would occasionally lapse back into the dead-pull hitter which in turn opened holes in his swing. As long as Joyce can avoid the same pitfall, he should continue to be a very productive hitter.
Data via TexasLeaguers.com and Fangraphs.com