August 5, 2009
Power on Contact
The focus on the market for players in July can cause you to lose sight of what's happening on the field. This hit home for me Monday, when I happened to look at a television screen and see "Mark Reynolds (32)" scrolling along the bottom. This didn't register initially, because Reynolds wasn't a trade target last month, and he's been playing for a team in Arizona that has been irrelevant pretty much from the moment back in April when Brandon Webb was placed on the disabled list. Reynolds is best known for what he does when he's not hitting homers: striking out. Reynolds set the single-season record for strikeouts in a season last year with 204, and is on pace to shatter that mark, pushing the record into the 220s, this time around.
This season, Reynolds' productivity when not striking out is historically significant. We know that players with high strikeout rates, such as Ryan Howard and Adam Dunn, have to be very successful when they do hit the ball to sustain any offensive value. You won't reach base enough to be a viable hitter if you can't hit up over .380 and slug well over .700 when you're not whiffing. Reynolds has done this, with a .446 batting average on contact through Monday's games, and a .942 slugging average, both marks that, if sustained, would be in the top dozen on-contact seasons in baseball history.
Best Batting Average on Contact, min. 500 PA
Player AVGoC Year Manny Ramirez .478 2000 Babe Ruth .478 1921 Babe Ruth .455 1920 Ryan Howard .455 2006 Hugh Duffy .452 1894 Rogers Hornsby .454 1924 Jim Thome .449 2001 Jose Hernandez .448 2002 Babe Ruth .446 1924 Sammy Sosa .446 2001
Best Slugging Percentage on Contact, min. 500 PA
Player SLGoC Year Mark McGwire 1.082 1998 Barry Bonds 1.073 2001 Babe Ruth 1.026 1920 Sammy Sosa 1.002 2001 Babe Ruth .996 1921 Mark McGwire .994 1996 Jim Thome .962 2002 Ryan Howard .957 2006 Mark McGwire .955 1999 Jim Thome .953 2002
As you might expect, the lists consist of a mix of players from the two slug-happiest eras in baseball history, about half from the 1920s-and at that, mostly restricted to Babe Ruth's exploits-and half from the modern game. These were the two times in baseball history where strikeouts were even close to being acceptable, the first coming when Ruth's power prowess changed the expectation of what batting could be, the second, our modern era, with its greater understanding of what strikeouts are, the byproducts of power and patience.
Reynolds' 2009 is an outlier even among his modern peer group. His .446 batting average on contact this year is 17 points higher than what the next player, Kevin Youkilis, is batting. Reynolds' power is even more impressive, as he's slugging .942 when he puts the bat on the ball. Adam Dunn is second in that category with an .837 mark, and no other player is above .800.
It is because these numbers are outliers that we can expect Reynolds' rate stats and value to decline quite a bit as we move into the home stretch. It's not unheard of for a player, especially in today's game, to bat .450 or slug .800 on contact. It's also not common, and with Reynolds not making any notable progress towards cutting his strikeout rate, he's more reliant than most on strong on-contact numbers. The ones he's had to date in 2009 are not sustainable.
A look inside the data on Reynolds at Fangraphs among other sites suggests that he's not really learning as a hitter. He's swung at nearly one in four pitches he's seen, an uptick from his career rate, and he's missing more than a third of the pitches he swings at. His 63.4 percent contact rate is the lowest in baseball. That's where all the strikeouts are coming from. He's been drawing a few extra walks, pushing his OBP up to .369, and the value he gets from those is real, and the one definite skill we can see in his 2009 line. Those 32 home runs? Two in seven of Reynolds' fly balls have cleared the fence, as opposed to less than one in five for his career coming into this year.
He's catching a lot of breaks, being the same basic player he was last year but showing stronger stats. The gap between the skills and the performance makes Reynolds a strong candidate for regression in the season's second half, something that would make a long Diamondbacks season that much more draining.