Why Nationals’ Joey Meneses has had a dream season
Was it his walk-off shot against the Oakland Athletics? Was it earlier that week, when he punched four doubles in the same game? Was it on Wednesday afternoon in Atlanta, once Meneses crushed a second-deck homer that delivered a win and could have material effects on the National League East race.
Or maybe your favorite moment is right now, realizing it’s — [checks notes] late September — and Meneses is still hitting, his batting average still .328, his on-base-plus-slugging percentage still .927 and home run total at 10 in 43 games.
“I can’t say enough about what Joey’s been doing for us since he’s been here,” Manager Dave Martinez said after Meneses went 7-for-12 in the series with the Braves, including an intentional walk to load the bases in back- to-back games. “He’s been hitting balls … doubles, homers, getting on base, playing good defense.”
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Since he was called up on Aug. 2, Meneses has filled seven weeks with questions that begin with “how.” How did he spend a decade in professional baseball before someone gave him a chance at its highest level? How does he keep hitting? And perhaps most importantly: How might he fit into the Nationals’ roster for 2023?
The answers, of course, are layered and sometimes complicated. Before the Nationals signed him to a minor league deal last winter, Meneses had played for the Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Red Sox, often finding himself blocked by dudes named Freddie Freeman and Rhys Hoskins. In 2018, he smacked 23 homers for the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, the Phillies’ Class AAA affiliate, and earned a $1 million deal with the Orix Buffaloes in Japan.
Things were looking up then. Meneses’s wallet was certainly heavier. But 29 games into the season, he tested positive for Stanozolol, a banned substance. Meneses contends he was unknowingly injected with the substance when a doctor in Mexico gave him vitamins the previous winter. He and his agent, Francis Marquez, appealed the one-year suspension to no avail, leaving Meneses to rejoin his hometown team in Mexico.
The 2020 minor league season was soon canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Feeling more down than ever, wondering if his career was finished, Meneses signed with the Red Sox in 2021 before the Nationals took a flier on him. His deal with Washington did not include an invite to spring training or guarantee Meneses would play for the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings. He was a minor league vet who had to prove himself.
“The only time Joey seemed mad, and only very briefly, was when we couldn’t get him a spring training invite this year,” Marquez said this week. “I felt the same way. I really wanted to get him an opportunity in a big league camp and thought he deserved it. But then he quickly called me back and was like, ‘Okay, let’s go. Let’s do it. I’ll do it.’ That’s Joey for you.”
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As for his continued production, Meneses is crushing breaking balls in September. Like really, really crushing breaking balls.
What most attracted the Nationals to Meneses was his contact ability, feeling it was a jumping off point to unlock more power. In past seasons, Meneses slumped when he hits too many groundballs. His bat stays in the zone for a while — a great trait for any hitter — but a flatter swing path made it hard to elevate contact to line drives and flyballs consistently.
The equation, then, is simple in theory if not in practice: Meneses has improved the vertical angle of his swing, thus upping his launch angle to the point of hitting more line drives without popping balls straight up, thus increasing his chances of doing damage when he does make contact. A less flat bat path is also connected to his early success against sliders and curves.
In August, Meneses posted a .211 slugging percentage against sliders. But in September, that number has ballooned to .579, with pitchers faring even worse when they throw curveballs. Month to month, he has cut his whiff rate on sliders by about eight percentage points. He has a .526 batting average against curves this season.
Of his 10 homers, three have come against curves, three against four-seam fastballs and one off a slider, sinker, change-up and splitter. A high batting average on balls in play — .374 — suggests there will be some regression down the line.
“That ability is something I’ve developed just with experience through the years,” Meneses said through a team interpreter of handling sliders and curves so well, adding he’s seen more sliders after pitchers leaned on fastballs against him early on. “Even though I don’t look for breaking pitches over the plate, I just react to them.”
An important disclaimer here: All of these statistics are from a small sample. Teams will prod Meneses’s swing and plate approach until they find an exploitable hole. That is what they do, especially when unknown rookies get hot, and a telling measure will be how Meneses adjusts to whatever counter adjustment is next.
But with each passing game and hit, Meneses adds a scoop of validity to what he’s doing. He has 187 plate appearances to his name. At the moment, his only evident cold zone is up and in. And while most of his power has come on middle-in pitches, he’s complemented that by often flicking outside pitches to the opposite field for singles.
With so many ways for fans and teams to evaluate players, there can be a tendency to shrug off something that doesn’t feel predictive. Joey Meneses, though, is good. It’s okay to just enjoy that.