Image Courtesy of AP
On Monday, December 6th, the Baltimore Orioles completed a trade that sent right-handed relievers David Hernandez and Kam Mickolio to the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for slugging third baseman Mark Reynolds.
Reynolds, who will be 27 at the start of the 2011 season, brings some much-needed right-handed power to the lefty-heavy Orioles lineup. Despite setting single-season records in strikeouts in each of the last three years, Reynolds has averaged 35 home runs a season over the same span.
Much ink has been spilled discussing the merits of the trade, which seems to be a win-win considering the needs and philosophies of both organizations, but I’d like to focus this analysis on the somewhat foggy task of projecting Reynolds’ 2011-2013 value.
Reynolds is under contract for two years and an option with the following breakdown:
2011: 5 MM guaranteed
2012: 7.5 MM guaranteed
2013: 11 MM club option (500 K buyout)
In essence, Reynolds is guaranteed 13 MM over the next two years (buyout included) with a club option that could bring the deal to 3/24. Even with the option exercised, this is a good value contract for an average or better starting positional player in his athletic peak.
But, just how good does Reynolds project to be?
Players of Reynolds’ profile tend to be quite polarizing because they tend to do two very obvious things (strikeout and hit home runs) and one not-so-obvious thing (walk) quite often. These hitters are often maligned for their tendency to whiff, worshipped for their ability to hit the long-ball, and, well, somewhat ignored for their ability to walk. With strikeouts, walks and homers comprising 51.5% of his plate appearances over the last three years, Reynolds is the quintessential Three True Outcomes hitter.
We call these outcomes “true” because they have almost no dependence on external factors (e.g. defense, luck, etc.). When the batter hits a ball that leaves the ballpark in fair territory, it will almost always result in (at least) a run. When the batter receives four balls before either receiving three strikes or putting the ball into play in fair territory, it almost always results in a runner safely reaching first base. When a batter sees or swings at strike three before seeing ball four or putting the ball in play, it almost always results in an out.
Any ball that is put into fair play, however, is not a true outcome. These balls can be caught, be fielded on the ground and thrown to first to retire the runner, or fall safely for a single, double, triple or inside the park home run. But the end result of these outcomes is variant and dependent on multiple external factors. (Yes, it’s true that a ball hit 400 feet to left center may leave certain ballparks and remain in others, but for this reason it’s correct to say that a fly ball is not a true outcome, while a home run is.)
Not all TTO hitters are created equal. The ratio of each outcome to the others will significantly alter the value of the hitter’s production. When the spread of outcomes tips toward strikeouts, a hitter will see his batting average (and subsequently his OBP and SLG) dip. When the hitter increases his BB/K ratio, he will start to reach base enough to salvage a respectable OBP despite a paltry batting average. When a hitter increases his HR rate, he might be able to hit for enough power to mitigate the costs of sub-par on base skills.
The best TTO hitters (see: Bonds, Barry) were wildly successful because they achieved the right balance of outcomes. While Bonds and Reynolds have both been just about as likely to walk, strikeout or hit a homer as to put a ball fairly into play, Bonds’ and Reynolds’ K/BB ratio are almost reciprocals of each other.
Still, these types of hitters don’t have to be Bondsian freaks of nature to be valuable. In fact, TTO hitters are, generally, more likely to create above average run production for their teams. Over Reynolds’ brief four-year career, he has been able to do just that.
In 2007, 2008, and 2010, Reynolds was able tip the scale to just above average. On average, Reynolds produced about 4.5 runs (i.e. about half a win) more than the average third baseman with his bat. Yes, he struck out close to 200 times a season over the same span, but he produced enough of the two good outcomes to outweigh the negative effects of the bad.
The one season I skipped over, Reynolds’ 2009 campaign, was a career year, a year in which he saw that perfect alchemical combination of outcomes that transformed him into a borderline elite player – he posted a .260/.349/.543, good for 25 runs (about 2.5 wins) more than the average third baseman.
Now a legitimate 40+ HR threat, it seemed Reynolds had emerged as one of the games young stars. But, one year, 211 strikeouts, and a sub-Mendoza batting average later, Reynolds found himself shipped out from the organization that had drafted, developed and extended him in exchange for a couple of unestablished relief pitchers.
What exactly happened?
Well, for one thing, Reynolds started striking out more – above even the prolific standards he had previously set for himself, actually whiffing in 42% of his plate appearances.
Additionally, the balls he did put into play were increasingly being hit into the air rather than on a line. While this will not have a damaging effect on a hitter’s home run rate, it will certainly affect his batting average. Balls hit in the air tend to fall for hits less frequently than balls hit on the ground, and much less frequently than balls hit on a line. Accordingly, his batting average on balls in play fell from the .340ish area, in which had been previously living, down to .257 in 2010. This, combined with his now astronomical strikeout rate, led to an (admittedly) embarrassing .198 batting average. It doesn’t matter if you’re Mark Reynolds, Carlos Pena, Adam Dunn or even Barry Bonds: having a batting average that low will have a significantly taxing effect on your OBP% and SLG%.
The good news is that, while Reynolds had been striking out more and more each year, he had also started to walk more and more each year. His 13.9 BB% in 2010 was a career high, indicating that the bump in K% might have had less to do with new holes in his swing being exposed and more to do with an increased willingness to take the count deep before swinging at a pitch he liked. That’s right, his increase in strikeouts were actually a product of increased, rather than decreased, discipline. This kind of bump is actually quite common, if usually less exaggerated, in young sluggers who are approaching their peak years.
Additionally, while Reynolds’ .234 isolated power was down some from his remarkable 2009 campaign, it was still higher than he had posted in any other year. So, Reynolds was walking more and hitting for just as much power as usual – the only thing dragging his performance down was his exceptionally low batting average.
Reynolds’ career low .257 BABIP was certainly fueled by his decreased LD rate and increased FB rate. However, statistical variance (i.e. luck) probably played its part as well. Given Reynolds profile, the shift in batted ball tendencies should have, indeed, caused a drop in BABIP, but only down to about .290. Adjust his production for that neutralized BABIP and you’re looking at a .231/.353/.466 slash line, which, considering the league drop in offense in 2010, would have easily been his second most valuable offensive season.
Take into consideration also something that I haven’t seen mentioned much – a freak hand injury that caused a brief cliff-dive at the end of Reynolds’ season. Toward the end of August, Reynolds injured his thumb. He rushed back from the injury only to post a .078/.213/.078 line in September. Over that span, Reynolds struck out in 31 of his 64 plate appearances and had no extra base hits. Clearly, he wasn’t right. The tailspin dropped his season OPS by nearly .050 points and likely robbed the slugger of the opportunity to reach 40 home runs for the second straight season.
I know – what if, what if, what if…
It may not be wise or fair to speculate that, if Reynolds’ line had been neutralized for luck and he hadn’t injured his thumb late in the year, he may have posted another .850+ OPS, 40+ HR season. Anecdotal and statistical observation suggests that Reynolds was getting a little too homer happy, sacrificing consistent, hard contact for extra loft in his swing. He still has holes that he needs to patch up, and there comes a point where a plate approach may be too disciplined. But, isn’t it prudent to consider all the mitigating circumstances surrounding his down season?
Setting anecdotes aside and just looking at comparables, Bill James projects a .233/.337/.490 line for Reynolds in 2011. And, just looking at the numbers, why wouldn’t one expect at least that for his mid-case projection? Sure, Reynolds is coming off a down year, but he will be just 27 next year – in his athletic peak – and, prior to 2009, had been getting better and better. Once one factors in the residual effects of his thumb injury last season, I think it’s safe to bet on a healthy Reynolds rebounding to be at least an .800 OPS bat, warts and all, with considerable upside.
Even if Reynolds stagnates around an .800-.825 OPS, he’ll still likely be a 2-3 win player. Statistically and anecdotally, Reynolds has made vast improvements defensively. He may only be a -5 defender at this point, but that’s still good enough to keep him around 2.5 wins above replacement.
Valuing wins at about 4.5 MM on the free market, you’d have to pay 30-35 MM over three years for that production via free agency. At 2/13 or even 3/24, Reynolds should provide solid value. Factor in significant upside, and Reynolds appears to be a bargain.
There’s still signficant risk, as Reynolds walks a fine line in regard to contact rate. Any more regression in his ability to make contact and he could see a free-fall. However, considering his age and the mitigating circumstances, I’d bet on above average production from Reynolds going forward.