The Tampa Bay Rays have kept waiting and waiting for Desmond Jennings to become the player they knew he could be. They were unfazed by his rough first full season in 2012 and looked at the positives from his up-and-down 2013, but they had to hope that this would be the year that Jennings finally put it all together. However, Jennings turned 27 years of age last October, and you had to wonder whether that meant that Jennings was entering his prime or whether his window to develop his game had come and gone. Apparently Jennings got the memo that this was a big year and has lived up to the occasion thus far.
Desmond Jennings was AL Player of the Week for this past week after hitting to a .355/.394/.742 line with 3 doubles, 3 homers, and 3 stolen bases in 35 plate appearances. While this past week was Jennings at his best, though, he has been playing well since the start of the year. In 130 plate appearances overall, he has a .294/.386/.505 line (151 OPS+) with 9 doubles, 4 homers, 6 stolen bases, and a 27-16 strikeout to walk ratio. He leads the Rays in OPS, slugging percentage, and stolen bases while tying for the team lead in home runs, emerging as the Rays’ best all-around hitter so far this year. The question, obviously, is whether he can make this last, and there are reasons to think that he can.
Jennings’ 12.3% walk rate and .59 walks for every strikeout are both careers bests, and that has been accompanied by his top marks in outside-swing% (18.9%) and contact rate on his swings (80.7%). Jennings has been more selective at the plate than ever and is hitting the ball with authority when he does get pitches to hit. Previously in his career, Jennings switched off between being patient and aggressive at the plate, and it seemed like it was one or the other. Now he has finally found the balance between both that he was looking for all along. As we try to figure out why Jennings’ approach has finally come together at the plate now, one factor could be that he is not a leadoff hitter anymore, batting second in 17 of his last 18 starts. The second spot in the order has traditionally been another table-setting hitter after the leadoff man, but recently, we have seen more teams put their power hitters there. Instead of trying to fit himself into the mold of leadoff man or power hitter, Jennings has simply been able to be himself at the plate and the results have been outstanding.
Jennings’ batting average on balls in play (.354) is well above his .301 career mark, and he also gotten lucky in terms of flyballs leaving the yard. Jennings is not quite this good. However, his plate discipline improvement looks real, and the same can be said of his baserunning. Jennings has 6 stolen bases in 7 attempts to begin the year, and he has looked more aggressive on the basepaths even when he isn’t swiping bags. After Jennings stole 31 bases in 33 attempts and took the extra base 63% of the time in 2012, he got tentative and slipped to just 20 of 28 and 54% last year. It’s likely that Jennings will get caught more than one time the rest of the year, but his confidence in the running game has been restored, and that is a scary combination with his ability to get on base.
There is also one area where Jennings is bound to improve before the year is through: his hitting against left-handed pitching. Overall in his career, Jennings has a .247/.325/.403 line against right-handed pitching and a .269/.356/.450 line against lefties. This year, though, his split has been precisely the opposite as he has a .320/.427/.493 line against righties and just a .235/.289/.529 line against left-handers. It is reasonable to think that Jennings’ hitting against righties is not sustainable, but that will be counteracted to an extent by an improvement against lefties. In terms of his hitting against righties, meanwhile, Jennings is making it clear that he is still the Rays’ best option to start in centerfield against right-handed pitching. There has been some thought that the Rays could sit Jennings in some of those games to give Kevin Kiermaier the opportunity to start, but Jennings is not going to let that happen.
It feels like Desmond Jennings has been around for a long time, but he is not even arbitration-eligible yet. If he is really living up to his potential now, the Rays will be reaping the benefits for years to come. Don’t expect Jennings to be quite this good by the time the year concludes, but between the true breakthroughs he has made and the production against lefties that is going to come, 2014 could go down as the season where Desmond Jennings became a star.