As of tomorrow, Desmond Jennings will be back for the Tampa Bay Rays. They are glad to have him. Jennings has his flaws–he has never been a great hitter against right-handed pitching, he has never fit well in the leadoff spot, he has never hit 15 homers despite the power potential that we always heard about when he was in the minor leagues, and now we can talk about the knee problems that ended his 2014 early and kept him out of the Rays’ last 96 games. That being said, don’t lose track of how good Jennings was before the injuries started.
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After looking excellent in his first extended big league time in 2011, Jennings was considered an above-average major league starting outfielder in 2012, 2013, and 2014. His consistency in that stretch was remarkable: 3.3 WAR, then 2.9 WAR, then 3.2 WAR according to Baseball-Reference and 3.3, 3.0, and 3.3 according to Fangraphs. If you are not familiar with WAR, a 2.0 mark is considered an average starter at any position. The WAR totals tell us Jennings added around one victory to the Rays’ seasonal total over an average starting left fielder in 2012 and then over an average starting centerfielder in 2013 and 2014. That isn’t spectacular, but it’s still quite impressive.
Put another way, Jennings was one of the Rays’ best position players for that three-year stretch even though he was so often complained about. In 2012, the year that Evan Longoria was injured, only Ben Zobrist was more valuable than Jennings according to WAR. In 2013, he trailed only Longoria, Zobrist, and a breakout Yunel Escobar. And in 2014, he was beaten by just Zobrist, Kevin Kiermaier (mostly because of his defense), and Longoria.
If you are having trouble wrapping your head around that, let’s counterbalance the list above with the list of Jennings’ strengths. He is a strong defensive outfielder who is slightly above-average in center and well above that in left. He mashes left-handed pitching, and his issues against righties make him no worse than average–it’s not like he is actually a bad hitter. And even if he hasn’t reached the homer and stolen base totals that people hoped to see, he still stacks up quite well among his peers. Only four left fielders managed managed 10 homers and 15 steals in 2012, and after ten centerfielders reached those totals in 2013, only seven got there in 2014.
We have been talking about the past, but now let’s get to the present. Beginning tomorrow, Jennings will take over as the Rays’ starting left fielder and the following things should not really be disputed. He will give the Rays a huge defensive upgrade in left–even though Grady Sizemore has been surprisingly decent, Jennings will be well above-average–and also give the Rays a third significant stolen base threat to join Kiermaier and Brandon Guyer. Beyond that, he will be miles better than Joey Butler‘s recent performance as the left fielder against lefty pitching.
Slightly more debatable but still true is that he will give the Rays a better situation against right-handed pitching by moving Daniel Nava to the bench at least until Sizemore falls back to earth. In addition, the Rays can finally add a reliable outfielder into a mix of inconsistent hitters like Kiermaier, Nava, Sizemore, and Souza once he returns. He won’t hit like crazy and his peaks may not be as high as the others’, but even when he is struggling, his plate discipline, speed, and defense make him into a solid contributor.
If we go back to the perspective of WAR, maybe Desmond Jennings will only help the Tampa Bay Rays win one extra game the remainder of the year. Perhaps is only good enough to give them an additional half a win, something that may or may not mean anything. At the end of the day, though, he will be a clear improvement for the Rays if he returns to look anything like he did before the knee injury. Even if he keeps driving everyone crazy, he remains an above-average major league player and the Rays can always use another one of those.