It feels like Matt Joyce has been in the majors for a long time, but has yet to really break out. Before being traded to the Rays for Edwin Jackson in 2008, Joyce had played 92 games in the majors at the age of 23. He played the majority of his 2009 season in the minors, and split his 2010 season with the Rays, in the minors, and on the DL. He actually was an opening day starter for the Rays in 2009, but it was in 2011 that he finally stayed with the big league club for the whole season.
Last year at the age of 26, Joyce put together a very solid season. He hit .277 with a .825 OPS and 19 homeruns in 141 games. He was actually the 4th best hitter on the roster in terms of WAR, but it still seemed like he had more to offer. So far this season he has looked like a player who has turned the corner into border-line stardom. He is batting .289 with a .935 OPS, driving in 29 runs and hitting 9 home runs. He has stepped up as the team’s best hitter since Evan Longoria has been out, and his improvement seems legitimate. As Joyce turns 28 in August, he is enjoying what most consider the prime of a hitter’s career. He has seen improvements in his power, ability to get on base, and plate discipline – all indicators that his breakout is not a fluke.
Joyce has never put up any huge displays of power at any level in the minors or majors. In his career in the minors he hit a home run every 33 plate appearances and in his career in the majors prior to this season he has hit a home run every 25 plate appearances. He has continued to hit for more power this year, hitting a home run every 21 plate appearances. It is important to point out that this season his home run to fly ball percentage is at 17%, considerably higher than his career average of 13.2%. This would suggest that his home runs will drop as the year goes on, but looking at his raw power might suggest otherwise. In the minors, Joyce’s ISO was .202 and in the majors before this year it was .223; however, so far this season his ISO is an impressive .245, 19thbest in baseball. His slugging has also dramatically improved this season. From the minors to the majors his SLG rose from .466 to .482, but so far this year it sits at .535.
Joyce’s average has also vastly improved this season compared to his minor and major league career. In the minors, Joyce was a .275 hitter, and in his major league career he has had a .259 average. This season he is hitting .289, which leads the team. When a player’s average improves that much, the first place to look is his BABIP to see if there is anything fluky going on. Joyce’s .330 BABIP this season is higher than his career average, but it is not an outlier. I would expect his batting average to fall slightly, but not too much as he just seems like a different hitter. A lot of his improved success in average – and power – comes from his newfound ability to hit lefties.
In the past, Joyce has been platooned against righties. Before this season he hit a paltry .196 against lefties, and .271 against righties. As Joyce has been playing full time this season he seems more comfortable against lefties and it has shown as he is hitting .265 against them, and .300 against righties. In 143 career at bats against major league lefties, Joyce has hit only 3 home runs. So far this season he has hit 2 home runs off of lefties in only 49 at bats (one being a grand slam off of Jon Lester). The improvement that he has seen against lefties – as well as his improvement in average and power – is attributable to his increased plate discipline.
Joyce is striking out slightly less this season than his career average, although his strikeout rate is still a below average 20.4%. Similarly, his walk percentage has also improved to an above average 13.1%. However, where his plate discipline can really be seen is in his approach at bat. Prior to this year he had swung at 42.5% of pitches seen, but this year he has only swung at 40.8% of pitches. He is also laying off of pitches outside of the zone a lot more, swinging only 16.7% of the time outside of the zone compared to his career average of 22.3%. His contact rate on all pitches is slightly down, but by swinging less at bad pitches he is making better contact, which can explain his higher BABIP and AVG. This increased discipline at the plate is a contributing factor to his much improved on base percentage. In the minors his OBP was .362, and in the majors before this season it was .345; however, Joyce is reaching base at a .400 clip this season, 5thbest in the league.
Matt Joyce is on pace to play in 153 games this season, scoring 87 runs, 27 home runs, and 87 RBI. These are not eye-popping numbers, but they are very attainable numbers. Barring injury, I would expect Joyce to keep up his pace the rest of the season. If he stays in the middle of the lineup when Longoria comes back, he could even beat those projections. For a player who prior to the season was not considered one of the top offensive threats, Joyce has really become an important cog in this lineup. His ability to hit for power and average, and get on base and score runs has been very valuable to this team. His 1.9 WAR is almost twice as high as the 2nd best hitter on the team this season, and is a testament to his improved approach at the plate. Joyce will probably never be a star to the rest of baseball, but he certainly has been to this team.