>I Was Right, Rob Was Wrong, Neener Neener

>By Bill

It was just a little over a year ago now that I shared my opinion that, while strikeouts are not generally any worse than any other out, the historic, unparalleled rate at which Mark Reynolds was striking out was going to present significant obstacles to this third baseman’s future value.

At the time, he was hitting .266/.357/.560, with 43 home runs. He’d peaked on August 10, though, at .290/.378/.611, and then hit just .191/.291/.397 in the month and a half or so since. My point (clarified the next day, here) was that even considering how hard he hits the ball, and even assuming all that added home run power was real, it was going to be very difficult for Reynolds to continue playing at an All-Star level while striking out as often as he had been. Homers are great, but it’s just very hard to be a productive player if you’re cutting off 40% of your at-bats at the root and not even giving yourself a chance to get on base via the occasional bloop hit or bounder up the middle.

It was one of the first times that Rob Neyer had taken notice of my little old blog, and he wrote up a whole piece on the topic, in which he essentially tore mine to bits. A taste:

Mark Reynolds, in 1,450 career at-bats, has batted .345 on balls in play. Which doesn’t even include home runs. As it happens, he’s also batted .345 on balls in play this season.

Can he continue to do that? My gut tells me that it’s a difficult number to maintain. But Reynolds’ performance doesn’t hinge on strikeouts; it hinges on home runs. When Reynolds hits 25 or 30 homers, he’s a pretty good player. When he hits 40 homers, he’s better than pretty good.

Reynolds played the team’s last nine games, and hit .154/.216/.273, with 1 HR. This season, in 142 games entering play tonight, Reynolds has hit .199/.320/.437. Since the (arbitrary endpoint alert!) highwater mark on August 11, 2009, then, he’s hit .197/.317/.424. In 2010, he’s hitting just .255 on balls in play, third-worst in the National League, dropping that lofty career BABIP all the way back down to .322. He’s still got 32 homers, but even that is way off the pace of 2009’s 44.

And those strikeouts? He’s almost certainly not going to set a new all-time strikeout record for the third straight year at this point — he’s on pace for 215, nine short of his record-smashing 2009 mark — but he’s crossed the 200-strikeout threshold for the third year in a row, the only three such seasons in Major League history. And he’s actually put the ball in play less often on a per-AB basis than he ever has before, at 41.9% (I can’t imagine why FanGraphs figures strikeout percentage by at-bats rather than plate appearances, but they do). In his record-destroying 2009, his K% per at-bat was “only” 38.6%…but he walked less and played a few more games.

Of course, correlation is not causation. Reynolds has continued to strike out at a brain-exploding rate, and Reynolds has been pretty bad (actually about average, per FanGraphs WAR, but clearly a huge step back from his apparent breakout ’09), but that doesn’t actually mean that I was right and Rob was wrong–i.e., that Reynolds has been pretty bad because he’s kept striking out a ton. There’s plenty of other stuff that goes into Reynolds’ relative collapse in 2010.

For one thing, Reynolds’ 55.0 fly ball percentage is very nearly the highest in the majors. It’s easily the highest of his career, and accordingly, he’s got the lowest line-drive and ground-ball percentages of his career. Fly balls, of course, while the only hit types that can possibly turn into home runs, are also the least likely to turn into any other type of hit. This isn’t just a matter of Reynolds’ luck running out and turning south; he’s actually a different hitter right now, at least slightly, than he was for at least the first 2/3 or so of 2009.

At the same time, while there’s no way he’s this bad (and again, “bad” just means about average, but a huge step below the player he looked like in 2009), I can’t help thinking that pretty much everything I was afraid might happen a year ago has happened. His HR-per-fly-ball rate is back down closer to his pre-2009 career levels (20%, after 18% in 2008 and a jump to 26% in 2009). More to the point, his BABIP is (somewhat predictably) down, and his productivity has essentially flatlined. And yeah, there has to be a lot of bad luck in that .255 BABIP, but I think (not being by any means a statistician) that that was exactly the danger Reynolds was facing: since he gives himself a .000 chance of getting a hit in around 40% of his at-bats, it seems to me that (a) his BABIP will be more prone to wild fluctuations than most players, thanks to fewer total balls in play; and (b) when the fluctuations head downward, it’ll hurt a lot more than it will hurt most players.

So the title is misleading. It’s not nearly as simple as I-was-right-and-Rob-was-wrong, and to the extent that I am right, I take no actual joy in it (I’d never root against a Hoo). You just have to wonder, though, what his numbers might look like if he could find a way to make the round stick hit the round ball (however squarely) a little more often. Don’t you?


About Bill

Bill is an employment lawyer and baseball geek. Also a comedy geek, and just a geek generally.