After years of wasting potential, Matthew Joyce finally broke out in 2011. An American League All-Star, Joyce was the leading the AL in hitting amidst a ridiculous .414/.470/.759 month of May. But after posting a .370/.430/.636 line in the first two months of the season, Joyce managed just a .226/.301/.391 line in the last four months. But after struggling to the tune of a .179/.234/.358 line in June and July, Joyce rebounded to .274/.367/.425 in August and September. Some hitters are simply streaky. And Joyce’s final numbers were nothing to scoff at- he posted a .277/.347/.478 triple-slash, good for a 132 OPS+ (meaning he was 32% better than league average adjusted to ballpark), and he hit 32 doubles and 19 homers, drove in 75 runs and scored 69, and in typical Rays fashion, he stole 13 bases in 14 tries despite just average speed. No matter how he got it, the Rays will take those numbers. But the problem wasn’t Joyce’s monthly splits, but his platoon splits: he posted a .292/.361/.505 line with 16 home runs in 421 plate appearances versus right-handed pitchers compared to just a .217/.287/.370 line with 3 home runs in 101 PA’s against southpaws. Will Joyce ever be able to hit lefties and take the next step in his development? More importantly, will he be able to be productive once again in 2012 even if he doesn’t have another scintillating month?
Matt Joyce completely changed his approach in the batter’s box in 2011. He decided to cut down on some power to hit more line drives and hit for a much higher average. He was pretty successful at doing just that. He raised his line drive percentage from a league average 19% from 2008-2010 to a great 21% mark in 2011 and although his ISO fell from .243 to .201, his batting average shot up from .243 to .277. And against lefties, Joyce definitely showed improvement. For his career, Joyce has a .196/.280/.322 line against lefties. All 3 of the homers that Joyce has ever hit against lefties and 5 of the 9 doubles came in 2011. Not only did Joyce up his average and OBP against lefties, but also his SLG and ISO. But improvement is relative. Maybe Matt Joyce is a better baseball player than he used to be, and the Rays definitely appreciate that, but his struggles against lefties are extremely worrying.
A big difference for Joyce from 2011 to his previous 180 major league games was that his BAbip (batting average on balls in play was .317 compared to just .273 beforehand. For some perspective, the MLB average was .295 in 2011 and is usually not too far from .300. That spike in BAbip was because he hit more line drives and line drives are much more likely to be hits than groundballs and flyballs. What was particularly interesting for us right now was Joyce BAbip for righties as compared to lefties for 2011 and his career. In 2011, Joyce had a .322 BAbip against righties and .293 against lefties. Joyce was clearly hit the ball harder against righties, but he was still average versus lefties. For his career, Joyce has a .298 BAbip against righties and .278 against lefties. Joyce was able to stroke the ball quite a bit better against lefties than he did in the past. He still struck out far too much against them (30.7% of his plate appearances compared to a nice 17.8% against righties), but he was able to get the ball on the barrel and lace the ball into play harder when he connected, leading to a better average and some power. Think about it this way: if Matt Joyce could be an average hitter versus lefties, he could be a .290 hitter in the big leagues, maybe even .300. But what’s interesting is that Joyce wasn’t quite as bad against lefties than he seems: his SOPS+ against lefties 100 meaning that he was exactly league average (adjusted to ballpark) for a lefty hitter going up against lefties. If Joyce can cut down on the strikeouts against lefties, his overall numbers could show quite a hike. After Joyce showed improvement against lefties in 2011, I think it’s fair to expect more modest improvement in 2012.
For Matt Joyce in 2012, I project a .285/.360/.490 line with 35 doubles, 21 homers, 85 RBI, and 10 stolen bases in 145 games. That would make Joyce look like a budding star, which he very well may be. Matt Joyce is a very good baseball player who is working hard to cover up his deficiencies and maximize his ability. With Joyce playing well, the Rays lineup becomes much more dangerous. Opposing teams beware, because that will be the case quite often in 2012.