Desmond Jennings, Matt Joyce take 'just play' approach

Desmond Jennings says that he doesn’t feel he’s doing anything differently, but Matt Joyce has been more conscious of committing to one approach.
Desmond Jennings says that he doesn’t feel he’s doing anything differently, but Matt Joyce has been more conscious of committing to one approach.
Published May 6, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — The advice, when you think about it, was as basic as it gets.

With all the analytics, advanced metrics, cutting-edge equipment, performance consultants and next-level training tools the Rays have available to enhance their players' performance, manager Joe Maddon at the start of the season told both Desmond Jennings and Matt Joyce simply this:

Go play.

"I've used the same mantra with (Jennings) and Matty Joyce, to just go and play a good game of baseball," Maddon said. "They've both done great with that."

The idea was to get them to stop focusing on the specific aspect of their game in which players are most often judged — offensive production — and embrace the entire game: baserunning, bunting, outfield defense, throwing, etc.

And the payoff has been that they've improved in all aspects — including hitting.

"Everything has gotten better," Maddon said.

After a decent opening week, a cool second and a couple of days of limited duty for a tight groin, Jennings has been playing, arguably, at his highest overall level, making highlight catches and delivering big hits. As a reward, on Monday he was named AL player of the week.

"Watching him play right now is really a pleasure," Maddon said. "It's a treat watching him. This is kind of what we thought he could look like. And he's doing it right now."

Ask for examples, and Maddon has plenty:

• In centerfield, how Jennings is taking better routes to balls, showing better closing speed, making better throws.

• On the bases, how he is picking his spots to run better, successful on six of seven steal attempts.

• And at the plate, how he is being more selective, showing that rare combination of power, patience and speed that can make him elite, leading the team with an .890 on-base plus slugging percentage while also being more open to mixing in an occasional bunt. "He's working quality at-bats, man," Maddon said. "Better at-bats. He's into it. Accepting his walks and not expanding his strike zone."

Jennings doesn't see it that he's doing anything drastically different, just better. He is pleased with his play thus far, but with perspective that consistency is what matters most.

"It's a good feeling right now," he said. "I just want to keep it up."

Joyce had already felt like he had to do something different after a disappointing 2013 season. Maddon's guidance just furthered those thoughts, as he, too, has been better in all aspects.

"It's just about playing the game the right way instead of getting caught up in the numbers," Joyce said. "The numbers are going to rise and fall, you're going to have good games and bad games. For me, the biggest thing is sticking with that approach and being committed to it and knowing good things will happen if I stick to that approach."

The biggest change Joyce made was to open up his offensive philosophy, getting away from pulling the ball so much to right and going back to using left-centerfield more. Also, being more willing and creative in beating the defensive shifts by showing, and occasionally dropping down, a bunt. The initial results have been good, with eight opposite-field hits already this season, compared to 11 all of last year.

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"It was a very conscious decision for me," Joyce said. "It's something I have to really work on and stay on top of and be committed to."

Joyce has had good starts before — he made the All-Star team in 2011 based on his April and May, then faded — and knows sustaining his increased level of play is the true test. After a sizzling first three weeks, in which he was batting .364 and among the American League leaders with a 1.080 OPS, he is just 2-for-his-last-25.

And to that end, he has made another less obvious but equally important offseason change: talking regularly with a sports psychologist to try to lessen the burden he puts on himself mentally in hopes of better handling the occasional rough stretches.

"I'm very hard on myself, so I've tried to take the mind-set that no one's perfect," Joyce said. "Sometimes you're not going to square the ball up and sometimes you're going to strike out and you can't beat yourself up to the point where you're miserable or don't enjoy what you're doing. Failure is part of the game, and I'm confident in my approach."

Maddon lauds Joyce for what he has been doing and says, as with Jennings, that the payoff has been evident in his overall play.

"He's playing the game right now, and he's doing it in a nice, calm, aware manner," Maddon said. "He's just playing the game."

Marc Topkin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.

Jennings named week's top player in AL

Rays centerfielder Desmond Jennings was named the American League player of the week for the week ending Sunday.

Jennings batted .355 (11-for-31) with three doubles, three homers, three RBIs, eight runs and three stolen bases to claim his first career weekly honor. The right-handed hitter led all major-leaguers in total bases (23) and extra-base hits (six) and was tied for first in home runs. In the AL, he was tops in runs, tied for first in hits, tied for third in stolen bases and was fourth with a .742 slugging percentage.

Among other accomplishments, Jennings on April 28 scored from second base on Matt Joyce's sacrifice fly, becoming the third Rays player to do so. He also homered in three straight games for the first time in his career.

Times wires