A Look at Josh Winckowski

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Photo Credit: Mark Steffens

“(I’m) still not on any top prospects lists.”  -Josh Winckowski

Lost in the shadow of Nate Pearson and Eric Pardinho this year was the performance of Vancvouer’s Josh Winckowski.  Lightly recruited out of high school, Winckowski turned down an offer from Southwest State Florida to sign for a $125K bonus after the Blue Jays drafted him in the 15th round in 2016.  The Northwest League Pitcher of the Year did not draw a lot of attention from publications like Baseball America this year, other than a passing comment in their Northwest League top prospects chat:

Winckowski drew interest from one of the opposing managers I talked to; what he liked about him was his competitiveness on the mound.

The 2016 15th rounder from Estero FL High School was simply dominant this season, his third in pro ball, particularly in the 2nd half.  Over the course of his last six starts, Winckowski allowed just 7 earned runs, totalling 35.1 innings, fanning 40, while walking only 5.  For the season, Winckowski led NWL qualifiers in FIP (2.77), GB rate (54.4%), K-BB rate (19.4%), and had the lowest FB rate (26.9%).  He posted the 2nd-lowest ERA (2.78), and next-to-highest whiff rate (12.6%).  Winckowski allowed only 2 Home Runs on the year, and all of the above suggests he’s a Pitcher who’s very tough to barrel up.  By his own admission, he was not at his sharpest during his only milb.tv streamed start this year at Hillsboro on August 4th, but he demonstrated that bat-dodging ability.

Staked to a 1-0 lead before he took the mound in the bottom of the first, Winckowski retired the side in order on 12 pitches, sandwiching a backwards K between a pair of ground outs.  The strikeout came on a 93 mph two-seamer that had some arm-side run and broke back in over the inside corner for the called third strike.

Winckowsk’s command faltered a bit in the 2nd inning, a frame that required 17 pitches to get out of.  He had trouble with his usually dependable slider (and may have been squeezed a bit with it), recording a flyout and a swinging K before giving up a two-out walk.  Winckowski retired the side on a comebacker.

In the third, Winckowski gave up what appeared to be a single up the middle on the second pitch of the inning.  Truth be told, I had it marked as a hit in my notebook, but Vancouver SS Jesus Severino made a fantastic play, taking the ball on one hop and firing from the outfield grass behind 2nd base to get the out at first.  It sounded like a hit; Severino took it away.  Winckowski got his 3rd K on another called strike three before giving up a single.  He finished the inning with another caught looking, needing 14 pitches to get Hillsboro out.

Winckowski’s longest inning proved to be the 4th.  He gave up another base hit, and struggled to throw first pitch strikes.  Still, he recorded yet another backward K to start the inning.  He needed 16 pitches to retire the side.

The 5th was easily Winckowski’s best frame of the night, a tidy 10-pitch, three up/three down inning that featured a pair of flyball outs to LF, and a popout to SS.

At 69 pitches, Winckowski was tiring a bit in the 7th, another 16-pitch inning.  After recording his 7th K on a lovely FB that broke in over the inside corner to Hillsboro leadoff hitter Jake McCarthy, Winckowski gave up a bloop single to RF.  Catcher Chris Bec made a great play a few pitches later.  Blocking a Winckowski pitch in the dirt, Bec kept the pitch in front of him, pounced on the ball, and threw out the runner on 1st who broke late for 2nd.  Winckowski followed that with a four-pitch walk, which drew a visit from C’s Pitching Coach Jim Czajkowski.  He retired the side with no further damage with a swinging punch out, his 7th of the night, before giving way to the bullpen to start the 7th.

Even without his best command, Winckowski tossed six innings of three-hit, shutout ball, giving the C’s a chance to get their offence together.  He threw 86 pitches, 49 for strikes – 7 of those were of the swing-and-miss variety.  5 of his 7 Ks were called 3rd strikes, and he recorded 5 ground ball vs 3 fly ball outs.  Winckowski threw first-pitch strikes to 11 of the 22 hitters he faced.

The key to Winckowski’s success was his ability to miss off the plate – his mistakes don’t tend to be in barrel country.  Even with this command issues, he was consistently around the strike zone.  He did try on several occasions to get a hitter to chase by elevating with two strikes, but he missed by a fair amount, causing Bec to leap out of his crouch to snag the wayward fastball.

After a difficult year at Bluefield last year, Winckowski found success at Vancouver this year.  He told the Naples FL Daily News, this year was different:

“My first half of the season was decent, I flashed having my good slider at times and my good change-up at times while locating my fastball, but I didn’t have as many games where I had all three working at once,” Winckowski said. “I don’t know if it was coming back from the all-star break and re-focusing or something physically, but during the second half I had all three pitches working most games.”

  What made the difference for Winckowski this year?  For starters, consistency and confidence in all three of his pitches:
I think I finally threw my slider how I knew I could for more than a few batters like in Bluefield. And felt like I never gave the hitter something to hit, I always missed off the plate never in the middle. My change-up can be as good as any of my pitches just a matter of consistency.
   In addition, Winckowski made an adjustment in his approach to pitching.  The Blue Jays have worked extensively with their prospects on mindfulness and the ability to re-focus during stressful situations.  Known in the past for having trouble controlling his emotions on the mound, he credits a pre-season talk with Czajkowski for helping change his perspective:

“We talked about having a better mental approach and staying relaxed on the mound,” he said. “Even during games where I was struggling, I was able to stay calm. And during that second half, I went on a really good run. My fastball command was good and I kept my slider and change-up down. I wasn’t giving the hitters anything good to hit.”

Finally, Winckowski worked on getting more extension in his delivery in an attempt to add some deception to his delivery and late life to his fastball.  He has spent time in the weight room trying to add lower body strength.  “Maybe it’s all in the hips,” he joked to the Daily News.  

 

Despite his success this year, you won’t find any Winckowski on any top prospects list just yet.  At 6’3″/185, he has a starter’s frame, one that suggests he can handle a good-sized workload.  At 20, he had the fifth-highest innings total in a league dominated by college players.  With his size, Winckowski gets a good downward plane on his pitches, and works consistently in the bottom half with his two-seamer, which touched 97 this year, and sits 93-94.  With its movement and Winckowski’s delivery, it’s a pitch with some potential.

What does Winckowski still have to work on?  Consistency and command for starters, but he made huge strides in his development with the former this year.  Left handed hitters hit .322 against him this year, suggesting his change-up may still need some refinement.  Continuing to get stronger will be a challenge for him, as well.  Winckowski told the Daily News that his eyes were open in Extended when injured players came from Lansing for rehab:

“We were two or three weeks into our season (which started in late June), and guys from Lansing were coming down with injuries and you begin to realize these guys have been playing since early April,” Winckowski said. “We were playing games in extended spring training, but it’s not the same. I know I need to make sure my arm is ready for a full season.”

The Blue Jays have been very conservative in their promotion of Winckowski, moving him up one step at a time.  He should start next season in Lansing, but it’s reasonable to see them challenging him with a bump to Dunedin if he continues to dominate hitters in Low A.  Originally from Ohio, Winckowski moved to Florida to attend high school, and may need to re-familiarize himself with the cool midwestern springs.

While Winckowski is a little disappointed that his name has not made it onto any top prospect lists, but he knows he’s still under the radar just yet:

I do get it. I wasn’t a big name out of high school, and didn’t pitch well in Bluefield.

If he pitches at Lansing like he did in Vancouver, that will change fairly quickly.  He’s a legitimate breakout prospect.

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Blue Jays Last Ten Prospect Hot Sheet

This is another in a series of posts about the hottest prospects in the Blue Jays system over the past ten days (or so).  It’s not a re-ranking of the top Blue Jays prospects – that will come out after the minor league season.

1.  Cal Stevenson, OF Bluefield.

The 10th round pick from Arizona has dazzled in his first pro season.  Sent to the Appalachian League, he doesn’t have a lot left to prove after slashing .519/.619/.926 over the last ten days.

Stevenson leads the Appy in Runs, and is second in Average and OBP.  He has a patient approach with has led to 35 walks (leading the league) vs only 12 Ks.  He’s also stolen 9 bases, and hasn’t been caught.

2.  Max Pentecost, C New Hampshire

Pentecost’s last ten days have helped partially salvaged a disappointing season for the 2014 1st round pick.  He slashed .500/.455/.700, and 4 of his 10 hits were doubles, bringing Pentecost’s line for the season up to .228/.263/.345.  His Average had dipped below the Mendoza Line in late July.

The Blue Jays stashed Pentecost on the DL after the Arizona Fall League season in order to help protect him from the Rule 5.  There was thought of the team turning him into a multiple position player, but he’s been New Hampshire’s everyday Catcher for most the season.

3. Josh Winckowski, P Vancouver

At the end of an hour-long conversation with Blue Jays President/CEO Mark Shapiro last fall, I tossed out a line from an old Baseball Prospectus article I read about building a bullpen being a General Manager’s toughest job.  In response, Shapiro said that he thought that developing starting pitching is a more difficult task.

And he’s right.  Starting pitching drives a team’s defensive bus.

A 2016 Florida HS 15th rounder, Winckowski has been brought along slowly, pitching at all three short season levels.  That patience may be starting to pay off, as Winckowski delivered two superb starts for Vancouver over the past 10, as part of a remarkable turnaround for the defending Northwest League champs.

Winckowski pitched a career-hight 7 innings vs Euguene on July 29th, then delivered his best start as a pro, tossing six shutout frames in his following start, allowing 3 hits while fanning 7.

Other Pitching prospects in the Blue Jays system may have posted more dazzling stats over the past 10, but those two starts stood out.

4.  Ryan Noda, 1B Lansing

Last year’s Appy League MVP got off to a slow start with Lansing, but he seemed to find his stride at the plate at about the same time he was moved back to 1B with the promotion of Kacy Clemens to Dunedin.

Noda hit 4 HRs over the past 10, along with 8 walks, in posting a 1.172 OPS.  Noda leads the Midwest League in walks and OBP.  A Toronto media guy suggested Noda would be a LF in the Blue Jays rebuild next year, and while both of those predictions seem highly unlikely, there is no doubt about his ability to grind out ABs.

5.  Patrick Murphy, P Dunedin

Murphy ran into pitch count issues (and some inconsistent Florida State League umpiring) last night, but he became the 2nd pitcher in the system to hit 100 this season (teammate Jackson McClelland is the other).

Murphy’s velo has been ramping up all summer.  Enjoying a second straight season of good health, he’s sat in the mid-90s for much of the season, and has kept that velo deep into games.  Murphy has averaged better than a K per inning over his last ten starts.  No Blue Jays Pitching prospect has done more to improve his stock this year.

With the Rule 5 draft looming if he’s not put on the 40-man this fall, it would seem the team is content to keep him at High A for the duration of the season.  Blue Jays management would not confirm that, of course, but that does appear to be the strategy.