21 August 2009

Recently Regaling Reynolds

Last year, when Mark Reynolds reinvented the all-time seasonal strikeout record, most every expert and his brother declared Reynolds had to do one thing to become a better hitter. They said his "contact rate" was too low and he needed to reduce strikeouts.

Well, every expert and his brother was wrong. Reynolds is on pace to break his own whiff mark, while establishing himself as one of MLB's most productive young sluggers. Smarter people than me - like Bill James - more or less saw it coming. I cant say I did. Not 45-50 homers. On the other hand, my gripe with Reynolds was never the strikeouts (although I griped plenty about team strikeouts). It was that Mark hadnt brought to bear positives sufficient to justify or counter the historic whiffs. This year he has.

The conventional fallacy was that his positive (light tower power) was, if not an immutable constant, more or less a given, whereas his shortcoming (strikeouts) was a wild variable he needed to corral. It appears something approaching the opposite was true. His enormous frequency of strikeouts is the given; home run frequency (and a higher BA) were the variables he cracked wide open.

I'm not sure how he did it, even after examining year to year pitch data. In both 2008 and so far this year, Reynolds swung at 46% of available pitches, and missed 38% of those. He's actually been a bit more aggressive in 09, because pitchers are throwing him more balls (ie he's taking a few more balls in 09, and swinging at quite a few more).

The other thing I noticed this spring is, he shortened his stroke. I assumed it would cut down on strikeouts and individual swings and misses. It's done neither, but his BA on balls in play is forty points higher than last year. 2009's ten "extra" homers dont count as hits in BAbip's formulation, but they dont count as fly ball outs either - and Mark's hitting more singles this year as well. Surprisingly, his contact rate's not measurably better (29% of swings put in play compared to 28% last year) - but the similar contact % has resulted in a more dramatic increase of hits.

I think a shorter, more controlled stroke could explain some or most of that "better" contact, and am skeptical the high BAbip's due purely to arbitrary regression or luck. Less so, after recently witnessing Reynolds zip the lumber through the zone, live. On TV, most compact swings look pretty much the same, and it's hard to judge the relative force of barrels coming through the zone. But bat sppeds are more obvious in person, and Mark's new, improved pass is brutally quick. Not bloody accurate, but so brutally quick you almost feel sorry for the ball if he makes contact.

This is the new Mark Reynolds, with gaudy accomplishments and recognition raining down like gold. As a lost season winds down, FSN has aired several recent comparisons with Mike Schmidt. Well, more recent than ours, anyway.

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