The Oakland A’s signed a free agent on Wednesday, left-handed OF Matt Joyce — or, possibly, platoon DH Matt Joyce.
It’s not the biggest move in the world, at two years and $11 million total. He’s not the most exciting name even in this thin outfield market, between established guys like Cespedes and Fowler and even the tantalizing power upside of wild card Eric Thames. But if you’re looking for signs of life out of the A’s after a pair of last-place seasons, then I have good news: this is exactly the kind of quiet, shrewd pickup that winning A’s teams have made in the past.
To begin, let’s play the oldest game in the baseball writer’s book: mystery player stat lines!
Player A career: 3,711 PAs, .261/.344/.447, 112 OPS+, 11.7 bWAR
Player B career: 2,289 PAs, .264/.359/.408, 114 OPS+, 10.9 bWAR
Player C career: 3,110 PAs, .242/.341/.429, 114 OPS+, 11.3 bWAR
(If you prefer wRC+, the results are similar; Player B is at 118, the others at 114.)
What we’ve got here are three roughly similar hitters. They are each comfortably above-average. Their batting averages are pedestrian, but they make up for it by getting on base (via walks, hence the big jumps from AVG to OBP) and hitting for mid-level power. None of them provides extra value on the defensive side.
Player B gets on base slightly better than the others but has the least power. Player C has a noticeably lower average, likely because he strikes out the most (21%, compared with 19% for A and 15% for B), but he also has the highest walk rate and just barely has the highest isolated power. Player A is a nice balance between the other two guys, but he isn’t the best at anything, and overall he grades out as ever-so-slightly the worst of the trio.
One last hint: All three of these guys are left-handed hitters with big splits, and therefore all three are seen as platoon players.
Player A is Seth Smith. He has posted an above-average batting line every year since 2011, spanning work with four teams, and he also chips in adequate glovework in the corner outfield. Player B is John Jaso, another consistently productive hitter whose main obstacle for years was staying healthy as a poor defensive catcher but has now has moved out to whatever corner position is available that day. Both were key part-time role players for postseason-bound Oakland squads, providing strong lefty bats alongside right-handed counterparts (like Jonny Gomes and Derek Norris).
Player C is Matt Joyce, the newest Oakland Athletic, who is best as a DH at this point but has been a quality hitter every season since 2010. (Except for one year when he was oddly terrible, but we’ll get to that in a moment.) He’s not a carbon copy of Smith or Jaso, but he’s in a similar mold, and you can start to imagine how a player of his stat line can fit on a good team.
If this is the headline acquisition of Oakland’s offseason, then of course that would be a massive disappointment. Joyce doesn’t upgrade the defense or help the gaping hole in CF, and he doesn’t provide depth to the pitching staff. But these are the A’s we’re talking about and December just started today, so you know there will be more moves coming — GM David Forst has made it clear they’re still shopping. There were several needs to be filled, and the first one checked off the list was a cheap lefty bat to help balance a currently righty-heavy lineup.
Of course, it takes more than some vague player comps to judge a move. Let’s take a closer look at Joyce.
Joyce wasn’t a high draft pick or a top prospect, but he worked up the minors quickly and debuted for Detroit at age 23. He soon found his way to Tampa Bay, and from 2010-14 he served as a consistently above-average platoon player, averaging around 2 WAR per season. After that came one-year stops with the Angels, where he had his worst campaign, and the Pirates, where he had one of his best.
The important thing here is Joyce’s bat. The 32-year-old has spent most of his career as a corner outfielder and will likely see time out there for Oakland, but he’s never been much help with the glove — at this point it’s probably best for him to DH as much as possible. He’s good for double-digit homers but has never hit 20, and his biggest strength is his ability to get on base.
To put his career 12.5% walk rate into perspective, that mark ranks 39th out of 531 qualified hitters since he entered the league in 2008. It spiked even higher last season in a bench role in Pittsburgh, to an absurd 20.1% that bested every full-time player in the sport. Some will be wary of a batter who draws value primarily from walks, but Joyce also hits enough that he’s not just out there playing lawyerball. He has plenty of room to come down from last year’s .403 OBP and still be an on-base maven, while also mixing in a bit of pop.
Add it all up, and here’s what you get:
2010, TBR (261 PAs): 132 OPS+
2011, TBR (522 PAs): 131 OPS+
2012, TBR (462 PAs): 115 OPS+
2013, TBR (481 PAs): 108 OPS+
2014, TBR (493 PAs): 111 OPS+
2015, LAA (284 PAs): 60 OPS+
2016, PIT (293 PAs): 131 OPS+
Aaand now I suppose we have to address that one little outlier data point. The one in 2015 that looks like a typo but sadly isn’t.
2015 slump, 2016 rebound
Joyce’s bat fell off the map with the Angels in 2015, and he was one of the worst players in baseball. That was awesome at the time, because he was on the Angels, but now it’s our problem because he’s on the A’s.
That might start to give you flashbacks of Billy Butler: a DH with questions about his bat, signed to a multi-year deal. Unlike Butler, though, Joyce isn’t coming straight off that dud performance. He bounced back the next year with the Pirates, enjoying the aforementioned OBP renaissance and also rediscovering his power stroke.
So, which extreme to believe? The age-30 off-year when he played in the AL West, or the age-31 mini-breakout that included a heavy dose of pinch-hitting? Both samples are small, about a half-season each.
Over at FanGraphs, Jeff Sullivan argues in favor of the more recent sample, and even sees the chance for a further breakout next year. He notes changes in Joyce’s swing that could mean his improvements are sustainable, and lists Adrian Gonzalez as a comp for those new mechanics. That’s exciting!
But the A’s don’t need that kind of best-case scenario in order for this to be a positive addition. My takeaway from Sullivan’s article is that there’s real, quantifiable reason to believe Joyce is truly past whatever ailed him in 2015. Even if he just returns to 114 OPS+ normalcy in 2017, he’ll still be a quality contributor who is easily worth his modest salary.
It took two guaranteed years to land Joyce, at salaries of $5M and $6M. In today’s market, that’s not very much. If you’re worried about laying out too much cash for a DH, consider that this entire contract is about the same as one year of what Oakland paid Billy Butler. This is not an expensive or onerous pact.
And what about two other players we looked at earlier? The 2017 salaries of Seth Smith ($7M) and John Jaso ($4M) average out exactly to Joyce’s annual average.
With this signing, the A’s estimated payroll now stands around $66 million, according to Baseball-Reference. That’s $20 million short of last year’s total, so assuming no surprise budget cuts there should still be plenty available for further additions — especially if any more veterans are traded, which is always a possibility. Oakland definitely didn’t blow the whole wad on one role player.
The A’s need lefty bats. Their top hitters are righties (Khrush, Semien, Healy), and their current best lefty might be on the trading block (Vogt). Joyce is one excellent step toward finding that balance.
It’s pointless to plug him into any sample lineups right now, because we know almost for a fact that the landscape will change in the next couple months. But as things lie, there is plenty of space for Joyce to be the starting DH against RHP, while leaving room for some lefty-masher to get the rest of the at-bats.
Here’s a clumsy analogy: He’s the lefty replacement for Danny Valencia, for the same salary. They aren’t identical, with different blends of power and OBP, but they’re each strong hitters with at least some level of platoon splits, and neither can play defense. The A’s basically discovered a chemical reaction that switched Valencia to the more-needed left side of the plate, and as a byproduct it yielded an upper-minors pitching prospect from a division rival.
Grade: B ... I like it. Joyce wasn’t the first lefty hitter on my wish list entering the winter, but he was one completely adequate and acceptable option. He was also one of the four free agents Athletics Nation signed in our community offseason plan.
I advocated for Josh Reddick a few weeks ago, but with him off the board (as well as Eric Thames) I’m in full favor of adding Joyce. He’s solid with intriguing breakout potential, all for a buy-low price. I would have bumped the grade up to an A- if they’d managed a one-year deal with a team option.
As long as this turns out to be only the third-biggest move of Oakland’s offseason, which I’m sure will be the case, I think we’ll look back on it as another in a long line of smart under-the-radar pickups over the years.
Let us now reJoyce.