The 2011 season for the Tampa Bay Rays has been anything but predictable. Manny Ramirez was gone as quickly as he was here, the Legend of Sam Fuld was born, and the team is playing sub .500 at Tropicana Field after being the most dominating home team in baseball over the past three seasons. The same team that many were quickly trying to write off as the disaster of 2011 after a 1-8 start has quickly righted the ship behind stellar pitching, timely hitting, and dominating play on the road and now finds itself atop of the American League East having won 21 of their last 28 contests. There have been many players responsible for that success from the resurgence of James Shields, the steady work by new closer Kyle Farnsworth, and the surprising work by minor-league free agent Casey Kotchman, but none have been more surprising than the work of outfielder Matt Joyce.
A quick look at the American League leaderboard shows Rays outfielder Matt Joyce leading the league with a .358 batting average (for all players with at least 100 at bats). Joyce is also fourth in walks, second in runs scored, third in home runs, and third in runs driven in on the Rays roster as he contributes all across the board. Weighted On Base Average (wOBA) is the best way to measure a player’s overall offensive contribution to a team, and Joyce is doing extremely well in that metric with a .420 wOBA. A good wOBA score is much like a good batting average but what Joyce is doing so far is well beyond good. In fact, only Jose Bautista is doing better in 2011 in the American League East as illustrated by this graphic done by Bill Petti of BeyondtheBoxscore.com
Joyce’s success in 2011 is due to a variety of factors. In 2010, he was incredibly patient at the plate, walking 15 percent of the time while striking out 26 percent of the time, but a new approach this season has him more aggressive at the plate. In 34 games, he has walked eight percent of the time while also reducing his strikeouts. That change in approach has helped him hit in situations that favor him statistically throughout his career. As a first pitch swinger, Joyce has hit .366 with a .986 OPS (On Base Plus Slugging) in his career and when he is ahead in the count, he hits .301 with a 1.127 OPS. The aggressiveness at the plate is a change in philosophy that the entire team is doing, as they have gone from leading the American League in walk rate last season (11%) to currently being in fourth place (7%) as of today.
Joyce is also making much better contact this season and hitting many more line drives than fly balls and doing so to all parts of the field this season compared to last season. Hitting the ball to all parts of the field and hitting pitches where they are thrown has allowed him to hit for a higher average thus far this season by making better contact resulting in more line drives to all parts of the park. As Joe Maddon said recently to Roger Mooney, “Joyce has just got into a nice little groove right now. He is not missing his pitch when he sees it.”
With Evan Longoria back in the fold, the offense is finally at full strength, at least on the road. The offense as a whole has been much better away from Tropicana Field as they have hit .272 with a .780 OPS while hitting just .227 with a .653 OPS under the roof. Joyce has done his part to help the home output hitting .397 with a 1.051 OPS thus far this season, and that kind of consistent production both at home and on the road has led to Maddon entrusting Joyce with a spot in the heart of the lineup hitting behind Longoria and making opposing pitchers pick their poison between facing two of the hottest hitters in the American League.