Monday, June 12, 2006

Reyes of Light
By Ben Valentine

One of the biggest critiques of the New York Mets over the last couple of years has been the insertion of shortstop Jose Reyes in the leadoff spot. Sure, Reyes looks like the prototypical leadoff guy; small and fast, but the numbers have said otherwise. The 60 steals he had in 2005 were nice, but what wasn’t was his on base percentage, just a .300 OBP. Still that was an improvement from his .271 OBP in 2004, though that coming in just 220 ABs. This year Reyes has on OBP of just .315 through the first third of the season, which may not seem like much. But in reality, it is.

The difference? A .246 batting average. And you know what’s strange about that? I’m happy.

It sounds weird to actually suggest that you would be pleased with a guy batting below .250, especially when he batted .273 the year before. But that number, combined with Reyes’ OBP shows that in fact, the shortstop is improving.

The key stat: 26 walks so far in 2006. He managed to draw just 27 in the entire 2005 season. Reyes walked three times today, on his 23rd birthday, so in spite of not getting a hit, he stole two bases and scored two runs.

Why am I so optimistic despite the average? Because I’m not Joe Morgan or Dusty Baker. Oh yes, and everything else says Reyes is a better hitter this year than last. Reyes’ slugging is currently .407, an improvement over his 2005 number of .386, despite the fact his batting average is 27 points lower. Reyes has hit six home runs this year after hitting just seven all of last season. Last year he had 24 doubles; this season he already has 11. After picking up 17 triples last season, he has seven this year. Translate those over a full year; (roughly multiply them by three) and you see he’s on pace for career highs in every offensive category; including stolen bases.

Why? Part of it is because Reyes is naturally improving. There might be a tendency to get frustrated with young players when they don’t develop as fast as one might hope, but Reyes is just 23. So while yes, he’s now in his fourth big league season, many players his age are just breaking into the majors. Truth be told, Reyes probably could have used more seasoning in the minors but at this point it is neither here nor there. Right now he is on the way up and that’s all that matters.

The second reason for Reyes’ improvement is the better eye at the plate. Since Reyes is walking three times more than he did last year, it stands to reason he’s seeing much better pitches than he was before. It also suggests that in years past Reyes was going out of the strike zone a great deal. If he didn’t swing and miss entirely, he certainly was not making solid contact on the vast majority of those pitches. In other words, he was getting himself out. This season Reyes’ walk rate indicates this has to be happening less.

So why is his batting average down in the .240’s? It suggests one of two things; either Reyes was one of the luckiest .273 hitters in baseball last year or he’s just been a tad unlucky this year. The better power he’s shown would disprove the idea that Reyes is uncomfortable hitting deep in the count. The general improvement he’s shown in every category except batting average suggests that it is the anomaly, not the other stats.

For those who doubt, look at the difference in Carlos Beltran. Last year Beltran batted .266 and had an on base of .330. About a week and a half ago, when I wrote my OPS piece, I looked at Beltran’s improvement overall and said the biggest thing the centerfielder had done from 05’ to 06’ was improve his plate discipline. At the time Beltran was batting .270/.389/.604. It was strange, since despite being on pace to obliterate every offensive mark he put up last season, his average was just .004 points higher. Something didn’t click, and it was the batting average. Today, just a week and a half later, Beltran’s average sits at .297. It stood to reason that if Beltran was making better contact as his power numbers indicated, his average would improve as well. And that is exactly what has happened.

Expect a similar thing to occur for Jose Reyes. Since he is clearly making better contact than last year, when he was primarily a speedy singles hitter, the average should eventually climb to at least where it was in 05’. If Reyes maintains his walk rate, that would put his on base approximately at .338. It isn’t phenomenal, but with Reyes’ speed (he currently swiping bases at an 81% clip, which is excellent), that would make him a solid leadoff hitter.

However, since the numbers indicate that Reyes has improved in everything else, why should batting average be any different? If his walk rate maintains, I expect Reyes’ average will approach .300 by the end of the year. As such, a .350 OBP or higher is not out of the question.

Don’t let the average fool you people. Jose Reyes is starting develop some of his immense potential. He might well be something special after all.

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