There were not many sure things coming out of this off-season. Maybe Michael Bourn would age gracefully or maybe he’d become Juan Pierre. Maybe Justin Masterson would wrangle some control and be a front-end option or maybe he’d fall apart with his ongoing struggles against left handed batters. Maybe Jason Kipnis would take the next step to developing into a power-speed second baseman or maybe he’d languish with a sub-.720 OPS for two straight years, reminding us all of that Josh Barfield jersey we burned last decade.
But one thing we were all sure of: Mark Reynolds would strike out. A LOT.
Among players with more than 1,500 plate appearances, Mark Reynolds led the known universe in strikeout percentage from 2009-2012, managing to K in nearly 33% of his plate appearances. Over that four year span, he struck out 790 times in just over 2400 plate appearances—averaging just a hair under 200 Ks per season. The only other player to strikeout in more than 30% of his appearances was Adam Dunn, who could at least make up for his whiffs with a remarkably patient batting eye (15.2% BB-rate, compared to 12.7% for Reynolds).
Below I’ve summarized some of Reynolds’ stats from 2009-2012 (taken from my MLB player dashboard):
Mark Reynolds – Rate Hitting Stats
Mark Reynolds – Strikeouts, Walks & Contact Stats
As you can see, after a great 2009 season (adjusted OPS 27% better than league average), his production regressed in some pretty basic ways. His BABiP dropped from .338 to the .260 – .280 range. His isolated power went from nearly .300 to the low to mid .200s. In 2009, more than one out of every four flyballs he hit became a home run; over the next three years, that became less than one out of every five.
But the one thing that stayed pretty consistent was his tendency to strikeout: over that four year span, only once was Reynolds not the MLB leader in K-rate (2012). Back to that minimum 1,500 PAs over the four year span, Reynolds contact-rate of 64.2% was the lowest in all of baseball. His swinging-strike rate of 16.3% was second only to Miguel Olivo. He’s just a remarkably consistent whiffer.
And since we expected Reynolds to be an everyday player for this season in some capacity, everyone just marked him down for another 600 plate appearances and another 200 Ks. We hoped for 25 homers along the way, but we were pretty sure we’d get some nice breezes out of the deal.
But something funny is happening on the way to strikeout-city: Reynolds is making contact with the baseball at heretofore unexpected levels. And it’s making him one of the game’s most valuable hitters.
Check this out:
By increasing his contact rate and reducing his swinging-strike rate, Reynolds has cut his strikeout-rate from a ghastly 33% to a mortal-ish 23%. That’s by itself isn’t going to win any awards, but when you have the sort of power Reynolds does, any appreciable increase in batted balls is going to translate pretty quickly into more home runs. So far this season he leads the league in home runs (10) and isolated power (.350), and has already been worth more than a win above replacement, only one month into the season.
While I’d hesitate to believe that nearly 30% of Reynolds’ flyballs will continue to become home runs (that’s absurdly high, even for him), I’d suggest that it’ll almost certainly remain above 20%. Couple this with the notion that plate discipline stats like Swing%, Contact Rate and Strikeout rate all begin to mean something (i.e. tend toward real development rather than fluky aberration) after only 100-150 plate appearances, and you start to think that perhaps Reynolds has really figured something out in his approach or mechanics that is leading to a decreased rate of strikeouts. After all, he’s already accrued 117 plate appearances so far this year: we’re getting beyond the point of small sample sized hand-wringing with some of these developments. Would I bet that he finishes the season with a strikeout-rate below 24%? Probably not, but I would bet that he’s going to set a career low this season–and that’s nothing to turn your nose up at.
I don’t think Mark Reynolds will be one of the most valuable hitters in the game this year. But in 2009, he hit 44 home runs and OPS’d close to .900. And that was with a strikeout-rate of 34%. I’m not sure what those numbers would’ve been had 10% more of his plate appearances ended with a batted ball instead of strikeout. But I’m ready to find out.