Countdown to Spring Training: 30 Days – Desmond Jennings

OK, so the first actual Grapefruit or Cactus League game doesn’t take place until February 22nd, but the Red Sox are splitting up their squad and playing a couple of colleges on February 21st so we’re just 30 days away from organized professional baseball. So why not a countdown of this final, grueling winter month that includes some fantasy analysis?

Obviously my primary focus at this site is on pitchers and you’ll get quite a bit of my analysis on them in late February when the SP Guide drops, thus I was thinking of something surrounding hitters. With 30 days to go, I am going to do a hitter per day highlighting one from each team. I selected my player of note from each team and then randomized them (which was pretty interesting consider who the final two were after the randomization) so that’s the order I’ll be following.

DESMOND JENNINGS

Always a tantalizing prospect, the Rays slow-cooked Jennings to the tune of 1004 plate appearances in Triple-A including 397 in 2011 despite the fact that his predecessor, Carl Crawford, had left for Boston via free agency that offseason. When he finally came up that year, he hit the ground running with a 1000 OPS in his first 175 plate appearances which included eight homers, 20 RBIs, 14 SBs, 24 runs scored, and 19 walks. He was doing everything.

Regression, which was probably inevitable, hit and hit hard as he shaved nearly 200 points off of that OPS down to 805 with a .162/.259/.253 line in his final 112 plate appearances. He still scored 20 runs and maintained his 11 percent walk rate, but the hot start caught up to him a bit and since the production came in two so distinct halves of amazing and crap, it generated discussion. It would be an interesting experiment to (travel back in time and) mix up the distribution of his production to small ups and downs that eventually land on the 805 OPS and see if it generates a different discussion. I’m sure it would.

He followed it up with a 2012 that looked more like the 112 PA sample than the 175 PA sample. He was a viable power-speed combo, only one of five players to reach or top 13 home runs and 31 steals*, but the walk rate fell nearly three percent to 8.2 while the strikeout rate remain steady at 21 percent. His home total was well off the 2011 pace which would’ve seen him hit 20 had he amassed the same 563 plate appearances he got in 2012. The doubles and triples held essentially even for those curious. So what happened?

*the other four were Mike Trout, teammate B.J. Upton, Carlos Gomez, and Jason Kipnis. All but Kipnis lapped him with either a lot more home runs or steals (or more of both in the Trout & Gomez cases). 

It is a bit too simplistic to just say that his home run per flyball rate regressed and that ate up his home runs. To a degree, that is exactly what happened, but without digger deeper it isn’t a helpful bit of information. He actually hit a larger percentage flyballs in 2012 moving from 35 to 38 percent and improved his line drive rate by 2.5 percent up to 20.1 percent.  Both of those factors can be good for a power spike, but the flyball contact was far less effective in 2012 as his infield flyball rate nearly doubled from 9.4 to 18.1 percent.

In his short 2011 sample, his flyballs hit off the inner third of the strikezone yielded a 5-for-12 (.417) mark with all five hits leaving the yard. He hit .297 (11-for-37) off the inner third as a whole in 2011. In 2012, he hit just four home runs off the inner third accounting for all four of his flyballs hit in nearly twice as many tries as he went 4-for-23 (.174). He still did plenty of damage off the inner third as a whole going 26-for-76 (.342), but pitchers got better at jamming inside to limit the damage to mostly singles (15 of the 26 hits). He wasn’t turning on those inner third meatballs like this one from 2011:

djennings

It’s one thing to drop your HR/FB rate because you are crushing warning track shots on gusty days or hitting the base of the wall for doubles and triples, but Jennings saw his HR/FB rate evaporate and shift into infield flies, the least successful contact a batter can make thus aiding a 61-point drop in slugging percentage and 47-point drop in isolated power (slugging minus average).

At 26, he is just about to enter his prime and doing so with 874 plate appearances under his belt should give him enough of a base to work from to make adjustments in order to fulfill his immense promise. The potential and youth will keep his price high, but the payoff is massive and even the downside was at least somewhat palatable despite massively underperforming his cost (51st ranked OF; 23rd most expensive) thanks to the steals.

He was the 92nd player drafted last year and his 2012, though under expectations, hasn’t really deterred anyone as he is tracking at 90th overall early on this winter. The composition of my team to that point would determine whether or not I’m willing to pay that eight round price tag.

If I have a foundation of guys with three-four years of track record, maybe Robinson Cano in the first, Adrian Beltre in the second, plus a Billy Butler, Cole Hamels, you get my point, proven veteran rocks; then I’d be more inclined to take Jennings. If you have team centered around Andrew McCutchen (just the one transcendent first round year), Jason Heyward, and Chase Headley, then you should probably go with Austin Jackson or Alex Rios who are being drafted 88th and 91st, respectively.

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