Something strange is happening in Tampa Bay. Matt Joyce is hitting in the month of April. Using monthly splits for analysis is a fool’s play, but throughout his career, May has been Joyce’s month to shine. Apparently, someone removed the month of April from his 2014 calendar because Joyce is off to a terrific start this season.
Joyce previously hat hot starts to the season in 2011 and 2012 when he put up very strong slash lines. In 2011, Joyce entered the month of June with a lofty .370/.430/.636 slash line over 186 plate appearances,and hit .226/.301/.391 the rest of the season. In 2012, he got to June with a .294/.368/.618 slash line and hit .211/.301/.358 the rest of the way. In both cases, his production faded. Perhaps that was due to the fact Joyce was not seeing regular playing time against left-handed pitching and perhaps some of that was due to time he spent in the Designated Hitter role. In the past, Joyce was not a fan of either situation.
That attitude has changed.
This offseason, he did spend time adding bulk to his frame to stay stronger throughout the season. The other thing he is doing is he is not ignoring the other side of the field when he is at the plate. Historically, teams have utilized defensive shifts on the infield when Joyce is at the plate because Joyce puts a majority of his balls in play to the right side of the field.
In 2014, he is forcing a change in behavior by opposing defenses in using all fields. Several times during recent series against New York and Minnesota, each defense played Joyce nearly straight up in a normal infield defensive alignment while over-shifting Ben Zobrist. Typically, defenses would employ the same strategy against both players putting three infielders to the right side of second base as they did in the photo below on Friday night (pic from press box point of view).
Lately, the shifts against Joyce have looked different. This is the shift the Yankees used in the same game earlier in the game with nobody on base:
Why the change in shifting for Joyce? The current spray charts show that Joyce is forcing the change in behavior of defenses.
Last season, 64% of Joyce’s ground balls were put pulled balls put into play, 22% were hit back up the middle, and just 14% went the other direction. This season, Joyce has pulled just 50% of his ground balls, and has hit 28% back up the middle and 22% to the opposite field.
To date, Joyce’s strikeout rate is nearly identical to where it was in 2013. His walk rate is two percentage points higher, and he is showing more due diligence at the plate chasing fewer pitches. His batting average has been .241, .277, .241, and .235 over the past four seasons due in part to Joyce’s struggles hitting against the shift. This is not the first time that he has worked to the opposite field, as it was part of his success in 2011. As he told Roger Mooney of the Tampa Tribune:
“The last couple years with the Rays, I think it (hitting the other way) was one of those things where I had so much adrenaline getting in there because I didn’t get a chance to relax, to get comfortable and play every day, so when you have more adrenaline, you swing a little harder, you try to do a little more and what happens is you pull the ball a little more,” Joyce said. Being able to hit the other way changes the way teams pitch to Joyce and the way they set up their defense against him.”I really had to become a hitter who could use the whole field,” he said.”
He is doing this with ground balls and even batted balls to the outfield. Defenses will understandably still shade Joyce to right-center, but Joyce has shown a willingness to look to the gap created in the positioning as he did the other night against Minnesota:
He said all of the right things in May of 2011, but fell back into old habits after that. If he sticks with it this time around, he could see a 40-point improvement to his batting average as he did in 2011. That would make him a three category fantasy player again for the first time in three seasons.
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