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Bullish on Matt Joyce

This is part of an ongoing pro/con series on RotoGraphs. Today we’ll look at the positive side of Matt Joyce. You can see the opposite side here.

Late last week, colleague Erik Hahmann was game enough to poo-poo a well-liked player on his favorite team — this is not an easy series. But today, we’re lucky. There are plenty of reasons to enjoy the Tampa-born 26-year-old outfielder, even if some regression is on the way.

Matt Joyce now has a .349 BABIP and we know that’s a little elevated in the context of the league as a whole. But, as some astute commenters pointed out, a batter’s unique mix of batted balls has as much to say about his BABIP as the fact that the number trends towards .300 across baseball. Using our trusty xBABIP calculator, we can see that his amount of line drives, fly balls, ground balls, infield and bunt hits should be showing about a .316 BABIP. That’s still strong and could still support a decent batting average.

Then again, batting average is not his game. His best average in a full minor league season was .273 at Double-A in 2009. He hits fly balls and has struck out in almost a quarter of his big-league at-bats. Now that he’s striking out less, his batting average might be decent, but it won’t ever be his best attribute when all is said and done.

No, his best attribute is his power. His overall minor league ISO wasn’t super impressive (.191), but a look at his career arc on the farm shows that he was adding punch as he advanced. The opposite might have been worrisome. His batted ball mix looks sustainable, too, so this is no fluke. He’s hitting more than 40% of his balls in the air as he always has, and more than average are going over the fence (12.8% HR/FB this year, 13.7% career, around nine is average). This year, he’s traded a few fly balls for line drives, but we can’t complain with the results. He’s now over 800 plate appearances into his major league career and has consistently shown us an ISO over .220. That’s regularly top-25 territory in a time when the league-wide ISO has dropped (.138 this year, .145 last year).

Of course, these pieces are all about degrees. If Joyce plays to his ZiPs rest-of-season numbers (.255/.340/.454 with another 10 home runs), both Mr. Hahmann and I could be correct. His batting average will have gone down and his fantasy production will have been a disappointment to many owners. But he also will have shown his trademarked power and have been a great pickup in many leagues. Is there any reason to be more bullish than ZiPs?

The key seems to be his strikeout rate. He’s showing a 21.3% number now, and has a 24.5% career rate. He struck out as much as 27% of the time in full seasons in the minor leagues, and ZiPs must be looking in that direction. Also, he whiffs on 9.5% of pitches, which is above average (8.4%). His current strikeout rate is a little worse than average (20.4%), so maybe he’ll strike out a little more. But does it really seem like a player with 800 PAs will suddenly strike out more than he ever has before? Perhaps we can believe his major league totals to date and pencil him in for a strikeout rate closer to his 24.5% career number.

If he strikes out less than ZiPs projects, and continues to exhibit the same power he’s always shown, he’ll be more likely to hit around .275 with another 12-15 home runs. That would fit with his entire major league resume, and give even skeptical owners a reason to feel bullish about Matt Joyce.