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The case for Matt Joyce

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Joyce has been the best corner outfielder not named Ronald Acuña, Jr. for the Braves and deserves to play accordingly.

New York Mets v Atlanta Braves Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

To say that Matt Joyce’s addition to the 2019 Braves was unheralded would be an understatement. Joyce had a wild week in March just before the 2019 season began. After being signed by the Indians in February, Joyce was released by the team on March 19. He was then signed by the Giants the very next day. After playing just three Spring Training games in a Giants uniform, Joyce was then traded to the Braves on March 23. Joyce played for three different teams in less than a week. It was essentially baseball’s version of speed-dating.

After a brief audition with the Braves before Opening Day, Brian Snitker had this to say about Joyce’s status on the team: “As of right now, we’re taking him to Philadelphia. Unless something happens with trades, he’ll be on [the Opening Day roster].” It was hardly a ringing endorsement and more of a lukewarm acceptance and acknowledgment that the Braves continued exploring other options. Nonetheless, the Braves gave Joyce the opportunity to start the season on the roster, and Joyce has taken full advantage of that opportunity.

Joyce has quietly enjoyed a productive season and built a case that he is more than just a bench player. Thinking about the Braves’ ideal outfield (once everyone is healthy), Braves fans’ thoughts might understandably jump to Ronald Acuña, Jr. with some combination of Ender Inciarte, Nick Markakis, and Austin Riley. And having those players healthy again could certainly have a big impact for the Braves. However, Joyce cannot be overlooked and deserves a chance to start often, even when the others return from injury.

First, offensively Joyce has been the Braves’ best corner outfielder of anyone not named Acuña. Of Braves hitters with at least 100 plate appearances this season, Joyce’s 112 wRC+ ranks fourth on the team (ahead of Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson), and his .379 on-base percentage is second only to Freddie Freeman.

Braves’ corner outfield options

Matt Joyce .270 .379 .423 .349 .349 112 0.6
Nick Markakis .284 .358 .429 .336 .348 104 0.1
Austin Riley .242 .294 .504 .325 .325 97 0.8
Adam Duvall .241 .289 .494 .322 .279 95 0.1
Charlie Culberson .276 .313 .447 .318 .288 93 0.3
Rafael Ortega .233 .303 .367 .290 .333 74 0.0

Second, while Joyce has certainly benefited from having nearly 90 percent of his plate appearances against right-handed pitchers, he has hit lefties well over the past two seasons when given the opportunity. Albeit a small sample size of 41 plate appearances against lefties over the past two seasons, Joyce has a respectable 108 wRC+ and .762 OPS. For comparison, fellow left-handed outfielder Markakis has a 91 wRC+ and .722 OPS against lefties over the same span but in nearly 10 times as many plate appearances. Although the sample size of just 17 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers this season makes it barely worth mentioning, Joyce’s wRC+ is actually higher against lefties (131) than against righties (110) this season.

To be sure, Joyce has a career 63 wRC+ against left-handed pitchers and probably has not been given many opportunities against them for good reason. Additionally, his xwOBA of .286 against lefties the past two seasons indicates he’s been fortunate to get the results he has. He is likely to regress against lefties over a larger sample, but the results lately have been positive. While he might still be best used as a platoon player, he hasn’t been hurting the team against lefties and perhaps deserves a shot at seeing how he fares against more of them, especially considering the lack of other good options at the moment.

Third, Joyce has hit better outside of the pinch-hitting role. Joyce has hit .197/.312/.333 with a 72 wRC+ as a pinch hitter over 77 plate appearances, but while playing outfield or designated hitter, he has hit .338/.440/.507 with a 149 wRC+ in 84 plate appearances. It should come as no surprise that a hitter would do worse when coming off the bench cold for one at-bat, but Joyce’s overall numbers would likely be even stronger if he is given more opportunities to start.

Finally, Joyce has played serviceable defense during his strong offensive campaign. Per Statcast’s Outs Above Average, Joyce has -1, the same as Markakis, Riley, and Acuña. Duvall is the only corner outfield with a higher OAA of 2.

This is not to say that Riley and Markakis shouldn’t get playing time as they return from injury. Both players could play key roles down the stretch and into the playoffs for the Braves. Perhaps platooning with Riley, who crushes left-handed pitching, would be a good way to build Riley’s confidence back up upon his return. But Joyce has made a strong case that he deserves regular playing time going forward, even when others get healthy. Brian Snitker has shown increased confidence in Joyce by placing him fifth in the lineup in the past two games. Hopefully, that confidence continues to grow and Joyce continues to reward Snitker for it.