It was pretty clear who the heroes of Sunday’s game were for the Rays: James Shields, who tossed a 2-hit shutout, and B.J. Upton, who slammed 3-run home runs. Shields and Upton have both been playing extremely well of late, and on Sunday, their performances reaches a coda. But another Rays player who has not been playing nearly as well quietly had a great game. Matt Joyce went 2 for 3 with a double, a walk, and an RBI. Could that game finally be the start of the hot streak the Rays have been waiting to see from Joyce the entire the second half of the season?
In 2011, Matt Joyce had himself a breakout year. He posted a .277/.347/.478 line with 32 doubles, 19 homers, 75 RBI, 13 0f 14 stolen bases, and 106 strikeouts against 49 walks in 141 games and 522 plate appearances. But the overall numbers don’t tell the whole story. Joyce started off the season slowly, posting just a .138/.242/.207 line with 2 doubles and no RBI in his first 9 games. But then over the next 42 games, a span of 153 plate appearances than lasted until the end of May, Joyce suddenly caught fire, posting a .419/.471/.728 line with 11 doubles, 9 homers, 30 RBI, and 26 strikeouts against 15 walks, and by the end he was leading the AL in hitting at .370. But then Joyce fell back to earth in a big way over an even longer stretch of 57 games and 213 PA’s from June 1st to August 19th, posting just a .189/.258/.353 line with 10 doubles, 7 homers, 24 RBI, and 49 strikeouts against 18 walks. But then Joyce hit well to end the season, posting a .290/.374/.458 line in his final 33 games and 123 PA’s of the season with 9 doubles, 3 homers, 21 RBI, and 24 strikeouts versus 12 walks. Joyce had a roller coaster ride of the season, but the overall results were good. In 2012, we’ve seen more of the same, but the second peak has never come.
Joyce started off the season a little slowly, posting a .208/.269/.417 line with a triple, a homer, 4 RBI, and 9 strikeouts versus 2 walks in 27 plate appearances across his first 7 games of the year. Then over the next 22 games and 85 plate appearances beginning on April 14th, he caught fire if not quite to his mid-April to May 2011 levels, posting a .315/.412/.658 line with 3 doubles, 2 triples, 6 homers, 13 RBI, and 15 strikeouts versus 9 walks. He remained steady from May 10th to June 14th, posting a .289/.420/.478 line with 5 doubles, 4 homers, 16 RBI, and 20 strikeouts versus 19 walks in 30 games and 112 PA’s. Over the longer stretch, he posted a .301/.416/.558 line with 8 doubles, 10 homers, 29 RBI, and 35 strikeouts versus 29 walks in a pretty extended sample size at least as streaks go, 52 games and 197 plate appearances. But then from June 15th to September 8th, Joyce’s production completely fell off as he posted just a .203/.274/.327 line with 7 doubles, 4 homers, 18 RBI, and a 43-14 strikeout to walk ratio in 43 games and 168 plate appearances. The difference in patience between the first streak and the second is startling- Joyce went from walking nearly as often as he struck out to striking out more than 3 times as much as he walked. On the year, Joyce has managed a .245/.349/.449 line with 16 doubles, 15 homers, 52 RBI, 4 of 6 stolen bases, and 88 strikeouts versus 45 walks in 103 games and 396 plate appearances. On the whole, Joyce has really improved his walk rate from 2011, but his power numbers have been significantly down. His overall numbers are absolutely fine- his OPS+ is a great 125 (25% above league average adjusted to ballpark). But why has Joyce been inconsistent on the whole?
There is one major thing that we’re overlooking here is that Joyce was out from June 19th to July 17th with an oblique injury. He has been in a slump basically ever since he got back. The thing that stands out most about Joyce’s cold stretch is how his strikeout to walk ratio has deteriorated exponentially compared to his hot streak. But didn’t start out that way. In his first 7 games off the DL, from July 17th to July 25th, Joyce was solid, posting a .279/.379/.360 line with 2 doubles, an RBI, and 8 strikeouts versus 4 walks. Even in the stretch from July 17th to August 13th, Joyce was not that bad, posting a .266/.344/.443 line with 5 doubles, 3 homers, 10 RBI, and 22 strikeouts versus 8 walks in 22 games and 88 plate appearances. But then suddenly he started to drop off over the next 7 games, posting just a .120/.241/.120 line in 29 plate appearances- although he struck out 5 times versus 4 walks. But then, seeing that he was in a 3 for 25 rut, Joyce started to press, and his plate discipline disappeared. Over his next 10 games, Joyce posted a .129/.156/.258 line in 32 plate appearances, striking out 11 times while walking just once.
Power and plate discipline go hand in hand. Plate discipline allows hitters to wait for pitches that they can drive. Without plate discipline, it becomes increasingly difficult to make consistent solid contact and hit for a good average. Hitters can do it, but usually there has to be a factor like speed involved. Take Mark Trumbo. Through April and May, Trumbo had an incredible .348/.396/.632 line with 10 homers and 12 doubles. But he struck out 35 times versus 12 walks. Since then, Trumbo has slammed 20 home runs, but his line has slipped all the way down to .232/.286/.440 with just 4 doubles as he has struck out 100 times versus just 22 walks. For Joyce, his pure power tool is not nearly as prolific as Trumbo, so when his plate discipline goes, so does his ability to hit for any sort of stable power. Joyce may never be a 30-homer player, but if he can maintain good plate discipline, he hits enough balls hard to be a .300 hitter with still 20 or 25 home runs.
On Sunday, Joyce did a little bit of everything, notching 2 hits in 3 at-bats, including a double, and also drew a walk. If he can stay disciplined, he certainly won’t do well every game, but in the long run he has the ability to be a well above-average major league hitter and a key contributor for the Rays in the middle of their lineup. Joyce has undoubtedly struggled of late. But hopefully his performance Sunday is the start of a run of better plate discipline the rest of the season- and also better performance.