The Braves entered Spring Training with a relatively thin outfield depth chart, clearly having an eye toward heavy reliance on Ronald Acuña Jr., Ender Inciarte, and Nick Markakis. Beyond that trio, Atlanta brought back Adam Duvall, but were not well-equipped in the event of an injury. When the Braves bought the rights to Matt Joyce on March 24, they strengthened their outfield but likely expected very little aside from depth in case of emergency. Joyce provided much more than peace of mind for Atlanta in 2019, aiding the offense and occupying an outfield spot while Inciarte and Markakis battled long-term stints on the injured list.
What were the expectations?
Expectations for Joyce was understandably low, as the veteran was in Spring Training with both the Indians and Giants before being acquired by the Braves near the end of March. However, the Steamer projections for Joyce were fairly optimistic across 420 plate appearances, with 1.2 fWAR and 105 wRC+ expected of the veteran. Given his uncertain contract status those projections may have seemed a bit lofty, but Joyce has historically fared very well against right-handed pitching, so his floor may have been higher given those positive platoon splits. Even after making the team out of Spring Training, it would have been difficult to envision Joyce making a significant contribution, outside of being a solid pinch-hitting option, given the makeup of the Atlanta outfield.
What went right in 2019?
Given the nature of his arrival, the modest expectations, and the depth in front of him, seemingly everything went right for Joyce in 2019. The veteran filled in ably as a starter, producing 1.2 fWAR in 238 plate appearance and batting .295/.408/.450. Joyce hit seven home runs with 22 RBI, but more impressively had a 38/45 K/BB ratio, making him one of the tougher outs on the Atlanta roster. His work against right-handers was especially impressive, with a .298/.410/.461 batting line.
In addition to his fine offensive showing, Joyce was also surprisingly adept in the outfield while filling in as the everyday right fielder in Markakis’ absence. The 35-year-old benefited from the short porch in right field at SunTrust Park, which made his modest range a lesser issue while flanking Acuña and Inciarte in the Atlanta outfield.
What went wrong in 2019?
While his production as a starter was impressive, Joyce was a liability in pinch-hitting situations, producing a .216/.318/.338 line in 85 pinch-hit appearances. Joyce did hit two home runs in pinch-hitting duties, but his primary responsibility when carried on the Opening Day roster was to serve as a left-handed power bat off the bench. Those responsibilities obviously changed as injuries necessitated that Joyce be a starter, but nearly one-third of Joyce’s plate appearances still came in a pinch-hitting role.
In addition to his struggles off the bench, Joyce was a complete non-factor in the NLDS against St. Louis. With a starting rotation entirely comprised on right-handed pitchers, the Cardinals appeared to be a lucky draw in the interest of having a productive Matt Joyce, but he batted just .100/.182/.100 with a single and a walk in 11 plate appearances. Such a small sample size is hardly indicative of the season Joyce had for the Braves, but his disappearance in the postseason was incredibly ill-timed.
What to expect in 2020
Given his uncertain contract status and the disparity between his his projections and production in 2019, making an educated guess for Matt Joyce’s prospects in 2020 feels like an exercise in futility. The 35-year-old would certainly be a worthwhile addition for any club in need of left-handed production, and could very well be back in Atlanta, though that may depend on the club’s decision regarding Nick Markakis. Wherever he ends up, it is reasonable to project that Joyce will be a productive bat against right-handed pitching, as he has been throughout his career, though the volume with which that production comes will likely be dependent on the team that gives Joyce an opportunity.