August 30, 2007
The Angels sweep, the Indians sweep, the Padres take a third, the Phillies take a third, the Yankees take a second…we'll see how all of these storylines develop today as these series come to a close, some of them in matinees.
Even though the Mets lost again last night, I want to write about Jose Reyes today. Reyes is a fascinating player, someone who two years ago was one of the worst players in the game, a leadoff hitter with a .300 OBP and one walk a week, getting by on potential and speed. Today, he's the best leadoff hitter in baseball, having nearly tripled his walk rate while sustaining his ability to hit for average and adding power. His development has been remarkable, a tribute to his talent, his effort, and the benefits of reaching the majors at a very young age.
At BP, we don't write about stolen bases very often. Perhaps it's an overly reactionary position, but it reflects the reality that steals aren't, on the whole, as valuable as they're perceived to be by many fans, mainstream writers, and people within the game. However, like top-tier basestealers before him, Reyes steals so many bases at such a high rate of success that his work on the basepaths is a key part of his value. Reyes is 71-for-88 (81 percent) this season, following years of 60-for-75 (80 percent) and 64-for-81 (79 percent). To put that into runs using a modification of Pete Palmer's formula, Reyes' steals have been worth 7.97 runs this season, or the better part of a win through stealing bases alone. That's very impressive, a mark that leads MLB this year, and is close to the maximum value any player will generate by stealing. As an example, Ichiro Suzuki's 45-for-47 last year was worth nine runs. Rickey Henderson's record year of 130 steals was worth just 9.7 runs, due to a whopping 42 times caught. Note that these are all approximate values; a more nuanced approach that considers the context of each stolen-base attempt may reach different, albeit comparable, conclusions.
Reyes is a player out of his era. We think of guys like Ichiro, Carl Crawford, and Luis Castillo as the premier basestealers of our time, but they've been leading their leagues with numbers in the 40s and 50s. With 71 steals this year, Reyes has set the 21st century record for a major leaguer. Only one other player, Scott Podsednik, has stolen 70 bases in a season in the 2000s. No one has stolen 80, a figure well within Reyes' reach, since Vince Coleman (81) and Henderson (93) did so in 1988. Think about that; Reyes is, loosely speaking, playing a 1980s game in the 2000s. No one else is even close to him; he's likely to lead the majors in steals by at least 20 swipes; no one has done that since Vince Coleman lapped the field back in 1987 with 109 (Harold Reynolds was second with 60). He dominates the category the way Barry Bonds dominates in walks, or Christina Kahrl in obscure references to European history.
We've become used to dismissing "speed players," in part because so many of them are missing critical elements of being a winning player. Most lack power, and many don't get on base enough. They earn the title "leadoff hitter" despite average and below-average OBPs. Ichiro, who held the "best leadoff hitter in baseball" title for a while (and still may in some quarters), will forever be, to me, a miscast #2 hitter, his unique bat-handling skills wasted by not batting enough with runners on base. Guys like Crawford, Castillo, Podsednik, and Juan Pierre are all flawed in one way or another. There's a tautology here, of course; players who become known for their basestealing are that way because they don't often bring that much else to the table. On the other hand, Lofton, Bonds, and Craig Biggio are the active leaders in career steals, and all have a lot more going for them than their legs. Others in the active top ten, such as Omar Vizquel, Johnny Damon, and Bobby Abreu, are well-rounded players whose ability to steal bases was just one part of a package.
Two years ago, Reyes looked like he was going to be "a speed guy," cast aside with the first category of players who run fast but don't get very far. Today, he looks like he'll belong with the second group, players who had long, productive careers that will land them either in Cooperstown or a spot waiting just outside, where the very good players who fell short of immortality linger. Reyes' transition from one group to the other is a credit to him and the work he's put in to become a better player, leavening his natural talent and his physical tools by developing skills that many players of his ilk never do. The statistical marks of a smart baseball player show up across his stat line, but the most encouraging one is this--Reyes keeps improving.
Jose Reyes now shares a clubhouse with Rickey Henderson, the greatest basestealer of all time, the greatest leadoff hitter of all time, and a man with a burgeoning track record as a coach. If Reyes is as malleable as he's appeared to be so far, I'm not sure we have any idea what his ceiling is just yet. He could steal 100 bases, hit 30 home runs, bat .330, draw 100 walks…or do all of those things in a single season. That's not simply something that should consistently make a difference for his fame or for the Mets' fortunes, it's something that should inspire us all to remember that some players can and do make major improvements in the course of their careers.