"In the days before Ruth, a home run was something to be sampled, an hors d'oeuvre at which a few notable players nibbled. But the Babe came along and cleaned off the tray. Then he had some beer, belched, and wolfed down some more. He was a study in conspicuous consumption, an unfettered basher whose disrespect for the home run paradoxically raised it to a level of reverence. They say he invented the home run, and to pass off that statement as hyperbole is to be tediously technical."
Lonnie Wheeler, I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story
If Babe Ruth invented the home run, then Mark Reynolds(notes) invented the strikeout. He's the only man to ever strike out 200 times in a season, and he's done it three years running, all while hitting 104 homers in the thin desert air. But the 2010 Diamondbacks set an all-time team record for strikeouts, and new general manager Kevin Towers identified Reynolds as the personification of the problem -- which of course he was, if you believe that strikeouts are a problem -- and Towers shipped his hot corner star out to Baltimore for a couple of relievers.
But a funny thing happened now that Reynolds has arrived at Camden Yards: He has started striking out less. It's weird to even type this, but Reynolds isn't even in the top 15 in strikeouts this year. He's actually tied for 18th, with 30 in 30 games, well beyond Detroit Tigers teammates Austin Jackson(notes) and Ryan Raburn(notes) (who have 43 and 41, respectively). Last year, Reynolds struck out in 35.4 percent of his plate appearances; this year he's striking out in 25.9 percent, a major decrease. Likewise, last year, 31 percent of his strikeouts were swinging strikes; this year, it's down to just 25 percent. That's still much higher than the league average of 15 percent, but it's a substantial drop for him.
Reynolds is still hitting .198, just like he did last year, when he became the first player to have more strikeouts than batting average points. Except this year, that low average is coming with with a lot less power. His isolated power has dropped from .284 in 2009 (when he hit 44 homers) to .234 last year to .158 this year. That's still above-average, but not enough to compensate for a sub-Mendoza batting average. He's only hit three home runs and, per Hit Tracker Online, they haven't gone as far as they used to. Since 2009, his average home run distance has decreased from 415.5 feet to 413.1 feet to 408.3 feet. His homer per flyball rate has also dropped so precipitously that it's almost sure to rebound somewhat — for his career, 17.1 percent of his flyballs go over the fence, but this year only 7.7 percent have done so. It could be that balls don't travel as far in Baltimore as they do in the desert ... but it could also be that he's not swinging quite as hard as he used to.
Reynolds is also walking less. Last year, he walked in 13.9 percent of his at-bats, and this year it's down to 9.5 percent of his at-bats. But his other batting stats have improved, suggesting that his lack of success this year is more luck-related than in the past. His contact rate has increased from 60 percent last year to 68 percent this year, which is still well below the major league average of 80 percent but much higher than anything he's ever done before. His line drive rate, which plummeted to 13 percent last year, has rebounded to 19 percent this year, right around his career average. Yet his Batting Average on Balls in Play is a career-low .243, 75 points below his career mark of .318. Assuming he keeps hitting line drives, it's a good bet that he'll see his average rise, though his power could still stay stagnant.
John of the blog Basebaltimore is not optimistic. In a post written Wednesday, he pointed out that last year, away from Arizona, Reynolds hit .181/.302/.341, which isn't too different from Reynolds's season line of .198/.284/.356 in 2011. Reynolds may be hoping that cutting down on his strikeouts will make him a more productive hitter, but it may be that the hard-swinging Reynolds was uniquely suited to the dry heat of Phoenix, and that he simply won't do as well in a more temperate climate.
The thing is, I meant what I said earlier about luck. Reynolds used to be a more luck-resistant player. As I wrote in 2009, he's known as an extreme "Three True Outcomes" player, a member of the Rob Deer Fan Club, a man who sees more than half of his plate appearances end with either a walk, a homer, or a strikeout — the three plays that ensure that the defense is not involved. Last year, he homered in 5.4 percent of his plate appearances, struck out in 35.4 percent, and walked in 13.9 percent — that means that 54.7 percent of his PA ended with one of the Three True Outcomes. This year, with major drops in his walks, strikeouts, and home runs, that number is down to 38 percent. He's making more contact, but more of the balls he hits are staying in the ballpark, where he's been victimized by that low BABIP. He's not a fast guy (notwithstanding his fluky 24 steals in 2009), so he's not going to boost his average with a lot of infield hits. Instead, he just has to hope that the balls he hits find holes in the defense.
His average will probably rise above .200, but his isolated power may not, and it's hard to imagine he'll ever hit 40 home runs again. The new Reynolds is a lot closer to what Kevin Towers wanted — a man who wouldn't strike out so damn much. But cutting the strikeouts may have been like cutting Samson's hair. Without his earth-shattering swings, everything else about his offensive game is just slightly less imposing. The old Reynolds was one of the most unique players in baseball history, the man who proved that it was possible to strike out more than a third of the time and still be a good hitter. The new Reynolds is just a slumping third baseman. I miss the old guy.