Since he was a minor leaguer, I was a big Desmond Jennings fan. I figured he would be the next Carl Crawford for fantasy owners, but perhaps an even better real life player given his stronger walk rates. Unfortunately, that memo never reached Mr. Jennings and for the second straight season, he has disappointed his fantasy owners. In 2012, he was just the 49th most valuable outfielder, no doubt thanks to his .246 batting average and a knee injury that limited him to just 563 plate appearances despite batting lead-off. This year, he once again missed some time due to injury, but even with 11 fewer steals, moved up a couple of spots to finish as the 42nd most valuable outfielder. Of course, that was still a disappointing performance.
The most alluring skill of Jennings has been and will continue to be his speed. He stole as many as 52 bases in the minors and was usually an excellent base-stealer. In his first half a season in 2011, he teased his fantasy potential by swiping 20 bags over just 287 plate appearances. Extrapolated over 650 plate appearances, he would have ended up with 45 steals. Although he struck out a bit more, his patience translated and he walked over 10% of the time, which led to a solid .356 on base percentage. All those times on base gave him multiple opportunities to run.
But in 2012, his walk rate fell to just above 8%, bringing his OBP down with it to a below average .314. That understandably cut into his stolen base attempts and he stole 31 bases in just 33 attempts. This season his OBP partially rebounded as his strong walk rate returned and he was back up to a .334 mark, which remains disappointing, but was surely better than what he posted the previous year. The additional times on base didn’t help his stolen base attempts though, as he attempted just 28 and was only successful on 20 of them for a 71% success rate, well below what we were accustomed to from him.
Jumping back to 2012 again, Jennings missed most of May and the beginning of June with a left knee sprain. That would certainly provide a good explanation for a lack of running, though given that he went a fantastic 31 for 33 on stolen base attempts, one would think it didn’t affect him on the base paths. This year, he didn’t suffer any type of leg injuries until the end of the season, but did battle a sore groin in mid-May that bothered him for a couple of days. Aside from that, he missed two weeks in August with a fractured middle finger. So injuries don’t really seem to be the culprit behind his low stolen base attempt total this season. The Rays ranked in the middle of the pack in stolen base attempts, so Joe Maddon and team philosophy cannot be entirely blamed either. Perhaps the stolen base aging curve to be unveiled next week will provide a better explanation since he still clearly has very good speed.
While I continue to hope for a 40+ steal season, in the meantime I could get excited about his power. Expectations were unfairly inflated when Jennings burst onto the scene in 2011 and hit 10 homers in just 247 at-bats, while posting a 15.6% HR/FB ratio. Naturally, he hit just three more the following year in more than double the at-bats. But Jennings’ batted ball distance increased from 2011 to 2012 and then once again in 2013. In fact, his distance of 289 feet was well above the league average, yet his HR/FB rate sat below it. I think there is some hidden power upside here and a 20 home run season isn’t out of the question. If he did that and finally used his wheels to steal those 40 bases, he would finally become the top fantasy star I had expected him to. It’s that easy!
What has really been holding Jennings back though is his weak batting averages. He sports just a .250 career mark and his full-season high is only .259. For a hitter with both power and speed and who hits more grounders than flies, it’s a surprise that his career BABIP is just below .300. Unfortunately, his xBABIP validates his mediocre actual BABIP marks, with all three seasonal xBABIP marks hovering around .300. More line drives and fewer pop-ups will be needed to boost that BABIP and get his average into positive value territory.
Perhaps the biggest risk for a future Jennings owner is his spot in the batting order. The Rays acquired David DeJesus in late August and with Jennings enduring his worst month of the season having posted a weak .229 wOBA, manager Joe Maddon dropped the latter in the order to make room at the top for the former. Jennings was still back atop the lineup when a left-hander took the mound and DeJesus was on the bench, but the majority of his future at-bats are going to come against right-handers, resulting in a less attractive batting slot for fantasy owners. If this arrangement sticks in 2014, Jennings is going to lose at-bats and counting stats.
I still have high hopes that Jennings puts everything together and has that one monster fantasy season I have been waiting for. But the threat of him losing his lead-off spot for good and his waning interest in stealing bases means a lot more has to go right now than in the past. He will surely cost less in 2014 drafts than 2013 ones, so he could remain an intriguing option given the ultimate potential for multiple category production.