You have to wonder if Matthew Joyce is related to James Joyce because he certainly is playing like Ulysses. Baseball-reference.com has Joyce as second in the majors in WAR. Fangraphs has him rated as fifth. The difference between the two computations, as always, is fielding. Fangraphs has Joyce as fielding neutral while B-R lists Joyce as 55 runs over average in fielding. Regardless, both sites agree that Matt Joyce is killing the ball at the plate for the Tampa Bay Rays.
Joyce is yet another of those coups by the Tampa Bay think tank, which, on a shoestring budget always seems to make correct player evaluations. Joyce was never considered a great talent. He wasn't chosen by the Detroit Tigers until the twelfth round in the 2005 draft. He showed some mild power in the minors with a pretty good idea of the strike zone but stayed stuck in Triple A for a couple of years. His .828 minor league OPS is pretty good but not over the top. But the Bay Rays saw something and traded for him straight up for Edwin Jackson, a pitcher who was getting too expensive and had a tendency to exasperate his manager and coaches, a distinction that's still true today.
In his first year in the Bay Rays' organization, he again stayed in Triple A most of the year except for brief, non-productive appearances early in the season in 2009. Joyce again started in Triple A in 2010 and was called up by the Bay Rays on June 25, 2010 and played regularly for the rest of the season. The results were mixed. His batting average was low at .241 but he contributed with a good on base percentage and some decent pop. His final OPS of .837 was just slightly higher than his minor league average, but in a pitcher's park, it was good for a very impressive 135 OPS+. Joyce finished with a 1.8 WAR for 2010. Not bad, but not spectacular. He didn't hit well in the ALDS against Texas.
But this year, he's flying. His current slash line is: .368/.424/.615. You can't get much better than that. His line drive percentage is amazing so far this year at an unheard of 29.5 percent. That's a lot of line drives! With Evan Longoria out early this season, Joyce gave the Bay Rays an offensive weapon and with Longoria now returned, that third basemen is not an island of hitting delight anymore for the team from St. Pete. Last year, if you got Longoria out, you had a chance of beating the Bay Rays. This year, you have to worry about Matt Joyce too.
Obviously, Matt Joyce can't keep this pace up. His .414 BABIP is not sustainable. But because he is killing the ball, his walk rate is down (who wouldn't swing when you are that hot?). So while the batting average will come down, he has a chance to maintain the on base percentage as his walk rate returns to his normal percentages. Joyce has hit six homers and frankly, he can hit a bunch more before the season is out. He has a sweet left-handed swing and his home run to fly ball rate of 19.4 percent should hang around in that territory all season.
The one drag on Joyce is his lack of ability to hit left-handed pitching. He's a career .152 batter against lefties and this year, as well as he's playing, he's no better. He has 18 plate appearances against lefties and is batting .132 with seven strikeouts. This will keep the Bay Rays from playing him against tough left-handers and when that happens, they will miss his bat. If he could learn to at least hit .250 against southpaws, he'll really be a superstar. But until then, he'll be a guy who can really rake against the right-handers.
But, as usual, the Tampa Bay Rays are flexible and can mix and match when lefties pitch, which won't be nearly as often as the other way around. They also got a break when teams like the Blue Jays traded a tough lefty in Shaun Marcum and Andy Pettite retired for the Yankees. That's two less tough lefties they have to face. Of course, they now have Zach Britton in their division and he's a tough lefty to say the least.
The bottom line here is that Matt Joyce has arrived in a big way--at least against right-handed pitching. His current WAR for 2011 already matches his total output for 2010 and he should continue to be a very good part of the Bay Rays quest for a second straight American League East title.
Update! As someone on Twitter reminded the Fan, Matt Joyce here is more like the Greek Ulysses than the James Joyce version. :)