Although the Rays made headlines with their “Opener” strategy, they also provided some under the radar fantasy performers in 2018 including Joey Wendle. He did not enter the season as a starter, but provided value to those who added him during the season. Of all major league rookies, Wendle finished first in average (.300), fifth in on-base percentage (.354), third in hits (146), third in doubles (33), first in triples (six) and tied for second in stolen bases (16).
It’s never easy to buy into older breakouts, Wendle will turn 29 next April, but ignoring late bloomers could be a mistake as well. Case in point, Whit Merrifield who built on his strong 2017 by leading the majors in stolen bases this season.
As for Wendle, he appeared in 139 games scoring 62 runs with seven home runs, 61 RBI, 16 steals and a solid .300/.354/.425 slash line. At a time when batting averages continue to languish in fantasy leagues, owning a player with upside in the category along with pocket steals makes him intriguing going forward. Looking at his batted ball data, Wendle surged in May, cratered in June and bounced back in July carrying it throughout the second half. Suggesting he’s totally out of the woods and repeating his slash line in 2019 would be aggressive, but there’s hope in the underlying data to avoid a collapse in average going forward.
Not only did Wendle increase his contact in the second half by just under seven percentage points, he also reduced his swinging strike percentage by almost four percent. Over his last 43 games, Wendle produced 20 doubles dating back to August 10th. During September, Wendle racked up 14 doubles in only 25 games, surged in pull percentage for a season high 40 percent along with his hard hit percentage spiking at 42.4 percent. Finishing strong, against sometimes watered down competition, does provide hope for Wendle being able to at least repeat his counting statistics from 2018 and even build upon them in the season ahead.
Wendle’s last 30 game sample yields 20 runs, 16 RBI, 13 walks, 16 strikeouts, eight stolen bases along with a .339/.402/.487 slash line. There were zero home runs, but the improved plate discipline combined with the uptick in pull percentage and contact could stick. If so, key on Wendle’s second half gains. He grew his line drive percentage by two percent, cut down ground balls by just under even percent and raised his fly ball percent by almost five. If some of the doubles hop over the fence in 2019, there’s a chance for Wendle to reach double digits in home runs in addition to his enticing stolen base totals.
Tampa Bay finished second in the majors in steals last year with 128 and they led the league in stolen base attempts per game. The team’s aggressive nature should continue in 2019. Wendle went 9-for-10 in steal attempts in the second half and in the Fangraphs leader board for qualified second baseman, he’s one of seven to reach at least seven home runs with at least 15 stolen bases.
In Justin Mason’s early mock series, Wendle appears to be a discount. He went, on average, at pick number 225.6 as the 15th second baseman drafted. This would slot him as a middle infielder in 12-team leagues and as a borderline starter in 15-team NFBC formats. Perhaps, Wendle’s a poor man’s D.J. LeMahieu with a few more steals and not quite the batting average upside, but this will depend on where LeMahieu signs. Wendle hit five of his seven home runs on the road and if he can carry the second half gains to a full season with the Rays, there’s room for growth. Planning on his average to fall to the .285 range seems reasonable, but there’s still value in this number. Anything above would be gravy.
It’s easy to overlook Joey Wendle, but as his owners from this past season can attest, his ability to accrue counting statistics without being a drain on batting average makes him an upside play later in drafts as a strong middle infield option. Bake in the fact Tampa Bay should continue to be aggressive on the bases and Wendle’s ability to hit anywhere in the order only adds to his appeal. It will be curious to see if Wendle’s stock improves leading up to spring drafts, but taking him along with Amed Rosario could result in a sneaky pair to boost a team’s stolen base totals in the year ahead with a chance to secure a solid 40 steals between them as a baseline to one’s roster.