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August 21, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

Not Quite a Reynolds Wrap

by Jay Jaffe

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Though the Diamondbacks' year is a lost cause as far as the playoffs are concerned, third baseman Mark Reynolds is having a season for the ages, with numbers that are a statistical freak show unto themselves. Pay a quarter and gawk, because you won't see the likes of them anywhere else.

The first thing that most fans know about Reynolds is that last year he became the first batter in baseball history to strike out over 200 times in a single season, finishing with 204 and becoming the third player in five seasons to rewrite the record books in that particular category. He's on pace to obliterate that mark this year, having struck out 168 times through the Diamondbacks' first 122 games, a 223-strikeout pace. Despite that, Reynolds isn't a totally undisciplined hacker. However hot his blistering pace, he's actually striking out a hair less often on a per plate appearance basis this season, in 33.1 percent of his PA instead of 33.3 percent; it's not like the hole in his bat got bigger. Meanwhile, his unintentional walk rate has edged upwards, from 10.4 percent to 11.2 percent, so his overall strikeout-to-unintentional walk ratio has fallen by about eight percent relative to last year.

Amid that avalanche of strikeouts, Reynolds is also having an historic season when it comes to batting average on contact [H / (AB - K)], as Joe Sheehan pointed out recently. If he could maintain his .453 clip, he would rank fifth among all hitters since 1900, behind Manny Ramirez (.478 in 2000), Babe Ruth (.478 in 1921, .455 in 1920), and Ryan Howard (.455 in 2006). His .960 slugging percentage on contact would crack the top 10 in that category as well, behind guys named McGwire, Bonds, Ruth, Sosa, and Thome-a group of players whose lowest career homer total is Thome's 563. So Reynolds is in the company of some off the heaviest heavy hitters of all time.

Indeed, Reynolds is keeping heady company on the leaderboard these days. He's second in the majors in home runs (38) and isolated power (.314) behind Albert Pujols, and third in slugging percentage (.595) behind Pujols and Joe Mauer. He's hit an MLB-high 14 homers since the All-Star break, including a flurry of 11 blasts in a 13-game span from July 26 through August 9.

When he connects, the ball travels a long, long way. According to Hit Tracker, Reynolds is the owner of the longest home run of this season in terms of both true distance (481 feet) and standard (normalized) distance (477 feet) via a blast that he hit off the Phillies' Brad Lidge, who knows a little something about giving up monster home runs. That shot wasn't an anomaly, either; Reynolds is second only to Nelson Cruz in Hit Tracker's Golden Sledgehammer standings with an average standard distance 416.6 feet for each homer, over two feet further than the average Pujols homer.

The extremities of Reynolds' performance raise the question of how much regression might be in store for him in various areas. Applying Brian Cartwright's batting average on balls in play estimator (15 * FB% + .24 * GB% + .73 * LD%), to Reynolds' batted-ball data yields an expected BABIP of just .286. The 79-point gap between that and his actual figure of .365 ranks as the third-largest among batting title qualifiers, behind only Hanley Ramirez and Ichiro Suzuki. Beating such estimates isn't a new phenomenon for Reynolds, however; over the span of his three-year career, he's exceeded that estimate by 39 points, which is ninth out of 277 players with at least 800 plate appearances in that span. Even with considerable regression from his .281/.371/.595 line, he'd still rank as an above-average offensive force.

The other question is what kind of impact regression might have on his astronomical percentage of home runs per fly ball. He's at 31.9 percent this year, tops in the majors (via our MLB Advanced Media numbers, which differ from other sources). That's a sharp increase from last year's rate of 17.8 percent, but even so, he still ranks eighth with 21.8 percent over the last three years. Ahead of him are Ryan Howard, Jim Thome, Alex Rodriguez, Jack Cust, Carlos Peņa, Adam Dunn, and Prince Fielder; behind him are Marcus Thames, Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols, Ryan Braun, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Hamilton, and Mark Teixeira-a group that includes just about everybody who's anybody when it comes to putting the ball over the wall. Even if he were only averaging homers on 21.8 percent of his flies this year, he'd still have 26 dingers, which would crack the NL top 10.

Reynolds isn't just a one-dimensional slugger, either; he has enough speed to have stolen 21 bases, giving him the major league lead in the Bill James-created Power-Speed Number, which rewards players who combine home-run hitting and basestealing. Alas, the net impact of his thievery is a negative one because he's also been caught seven times-four of them trying to steal third-and picked off an additional two times; he's cost the Diamondbacks 2.5 runs due to that aggressiveness, and has been slightly below average in his other baserunning endeavors as well. While he's got the tools, they're in need of refinement.

In Baseball Prospectus 2009, we knocked his play at third base ("he stinks defensively" were the exact words). Our static defensive system, FRAA, had him 10 runs below average last year and 14 below this year, but via our new play-by-play metric, he was just one run below average. Other systems such as Ultimate Zone Rating (-3.0 last year, -0.3 this year) and the Fielding Bible's Plus/Minus (-8 last year, -1 this year) view his performance relatively charitably; below average, sure, but hardly enough to warrant such scorn.

The bottom line is that for all of his freaky and potentially fluky stats, Reynolds is a valuable player , good enough to crack the NL top 20 with a .304 EqA without giving too much back on defense. While some regression is inevitable regarding the extreme aspects of his performance, given that he's just in his age-25 season (he turned 26 on August 3), there's plenty of potential for growth as well. The select company he's keeping suggests we could be looking at player who's going to stick around and rack up some serious home run totals before he's through.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

Related Content:  Mark Reynolds

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