Mark Reynolds Is Better & Worse Than You Think

The public perception of Mark Reynolds’ value as a player is kind of weird. On the one hand, there are all those strike-outs that many people hate – they think that (and by extension, the low batting average that comes with them) makes Reynolds a bad player. On the other hand, many people look at the home runs and RBIs and think of Reynolds as a run producing impact bat – as a good player. The truth is, Reynolds does a couple things well – generally really well – and a couple things poorly (really, really poorly), and that makes him a non-awful but not terribly good player.

The Good:

* The guy has good plate discipline. He tends not to chase pitches out of the strike-zone that much, and as a result he ends up walking quite a bit. His 13.9% walk rate is one of the better marks in the league, and easily tops on the O’s (min. 50 PA).

* He has good power. The 44 home runs Reynolds hit in 2009 aren’t going to happen again, but he’s on pace to hit 25-30 which isn’t half bad in this lower run environment. And that’s with his slow start – his home run per flyball rate was gone from 7% in April to 16% in May to over 37% in June (he’s hit 3 homers in 7 games*).

* Instead of doing it my months, how about groups of 20 games (well, 20-20-19). I scaled things to a 600 PA season just to make clearer the improvement:

First 20 166 55 16
Next 20 159 87 22
Last 19 148 107 41

I do think his HR/FB rate will come up from its current 15%, given that his flyball distribution has changed drastically. Over half of his flyballs this year have been to center-field (the deepest part of the park) – once he starts hitting the ball towards the lines a little more, it should clear the fence more often (though his pull power is still down – his HR/FB rates on just balls hit to left has trended down in the last couple years, from 49% to 36% to 27%). 30 home runs for the season seems like at attainable goal, but I’m not sure I’d sign Reynolds to a long term extension counting on many years of power production at this point.

The Bad:

* He K’s, a lot. But he’s on pace to set a career low in strike-outs (on a rate basis), and his contact rate is the best it’s ever been at 67.5% (which is still terrible). I’m still not sure that’s a good thing.

Reynolds is putting up a line very similar to last year: .199/.315/.413 vs. 198/.320/.433. Though 2011’s is a little lower, given how much worse the average batter’s been he’s actually gone from a bit below average as a hitter (96 wRC+) to a bit above average (105 wRC+).

So he’s hitting similarly with the same walk rate (13.9% to 13.8%), but his strike-outs are way down (35% of PA to 26%). If K’s are the main reason you don’t think much of Reynolds as a player, wouldn’t you expect such drastic improvement to lead to actual, you know, improvement?

Instead, Reynolds has just traded strike-outs for outs on balls in play. His BABIP – which already collapsed from .325+ to just .257 last year, has fallen further to .228. If he was striking out at 2010’s rate instead of 2011’s rate, Reynolds would have about 21 more K’s than he does right now in his 232 PA. Add a couple extra home runs (at the expense of, say, two doubles), and his 2011 BABIP would be .260. And his batting line would be virtually identical to last year, and virtually identical to what it is now. If his low BABIP is actually a byproduct of his efforts to strike out less, in other words, then it’s a largely worthless enterprise (especially given some of the extra balls in play will turn into double plays – he has 6 already, compared to just 8 in each of the previous two seasons).

So is his low BABIP going along with the fewer K’s? I have no idea. The main culprit is fewer line-drives, which go for hits much more often than other balls in play. Reynolds’ line-drive rate has fallen from 17% to 13% to just 11% this year. His expected BABIP this year, given typical rates for each batted ball type, is higher than the actual but still too low to be effective at .250.

The secondary issue* is how often his groundballs are getting through the infield, as his groundball BABIP has fallen from ~.300 in his first few seasons to .226 last year to .186 this year. I don’t know if Reynolds’ grounders just suddenly became much easier to field or he’s been unlucky – or stopped being lucky, I suppose, since a .300 BABIP on grounders is quite high.

* The BABIP on flyballs is down too, but it’s not all that much and I think it’s mainly a byproduct of hitting more pop-ups.

My theory – Reynolds is swinging less hard. That lets him make better contact and strike out less, but he’s not doing as much when he makes contact. More K’s would be just fine if they came with more home runs and a higher BABIP.

* He’s a bad fielder. I have no idea why people thought he was good with the glove coming into this season, or how many people still think that now – perhaps it’s the one time a week he’ll make a play that looks pretty good – but Reynolds is giving away runs with the glove. A lot of them.

His .913 fielding percentage is the lowest for anyone in baseball at any position this year, and while errors aren’t the end-all and be-all when judging fielding, that’s still not good. On top of the errors, his range is poor. His career defensive numbers at third were bad coming into 2011, but a decent 2010 gave at least some reason for hope that Reynolds was improving a bit. Nope.

UZR: – 10 runs
DRS: -16 runs
Total Zone: -5 runs

And that’s in only 59 games (which makes the numbers not mean so much, but in the light of his history they paint a reasonable picture). It’s entirely possible that Reynolds could play average defense from here on out and still end up the worst fielding third-baseman in baseball this year. It’s hard for even a solidly above average hitter to provide value when he’s such a drag defensively, and Reynolds isn’t hitting near well enough for that. Thus his 0.0 fWAR.

Stats: K% & BB%, HR/FB%, wRC+BABIP, Batted Ball Types, Contact Rate, UZR, DRS, TZ, WAR