Reynolds’ reaction to K’s is a whiff of fresh air

To travel from home plate to the dugout takes 15 seconds, give or take the ballpark and, of course, the nature of the moment.

Fifteen seconds come at the pace of a trudge, batter’s box to top step.

Fifteen seconds, the ones that follow a strikeout, come at the pointed end of despair, of why’d-I swing-at-that, of that-wasn’t-a-strike, of I-stink-at-this.

They’re a spoiled at-bat, contemplated.

No one travels it more often than Mark Reynolds(notes), the Arizona Diamondbacks’ 26-year-old cleanup hitter, possessor of big swings (and misses), freakish power, an engine that never stops and the most delightful and grounded perspective on how they co-exist.

A year ago about this time, on his way to surpassing the single-season record for strikeouts (Ryan Howard’s(notes) 199 in 2007) in his first full season, Reynolds carried a single thought on his nightly journeys.

“Well,” he’d think, “I’m one closer to setting the record.”

With a finishing kick of 33 strikeouts in the final month, Reynolds went down in an umpire-bellowing cloud 204 times, so with room to spare.

“Last year, it bothered me,” he said. “I was barely out of my rookie year, and all these people were in my head about the strikeout record.”

Here he is again, three more strikeouts, 12 in September, up to a baseball-leading 189 (26 more than Howard and Carlos Pena(notes)), and on a pace for an extraordinary 220. Before Reynolds and Howard and Jack Cust(notes) and Adam Dunn(notes) came along, Bobby Bonds’ 189 strikeouts in 1970 were the standard. Then Dunn whiffed 195 times in ’04, and the race to 200 was on. Now Reynolds is threatening to put it out of reach, and his thoughts during his lonely return trips have changed.

“If I break it again, whatever,” he said. “Doesn’t matter to me.”

An out’s an out, he figures.

“I don’t see how it’s such a bad thing,” Reynolds said. “Whoever made that up, that it’s such a bad thing to strike out, is full of crap.”

Besides, as his manager, A.J. Hinch pointed out, “Hey, it’s his own record. His name’s already by it.”

There’s a lot more to Reynolds’ story.

While he has gone about stirring up all the dust around the plate and wearing out umpires’ right arms, he’s also hanging with the big boys in the home-run race. Despite giving up three inches to some (Howard), 60 pounds in places (Prince Fielder(notes)), and thousands of plate appearances in others (Albert Pujols(notes)), Reynolds has 41 homers, second only to Pujols’ 45. And lest it appear Reynolds is a bit too specialized (or limited), his batting average (.273) is right with Howard’s, his RBI (93) are with Ryan Braun’s and his OPS (.943) ranks eighth in the National League.

Barely five years out of Virginia, where he played shortstop to Ryan Zimmerman’s(notes) third base, and the 2004 draft, in which he wasn’t taken until the 16th round, Reynolds has – day by day, swing by swing, inch by inch – made himself into a player. The 34 errors he committed at third last season? He’s halved them, to 17. The 11 steals last season? Doubled them to 22. The meek .320 on-base percentage? Now at a reasonable .365, ninth among big league third basemen, and higher than Evan Longoria’s,(notes) Casey Blake’s(notes) and Mike Lowell’s.(notes)

Scouts debate his best position, his big swings, all those misses. But they love how hard he plays, that he’s taken average speed and become dangerous on the bases, and, of course, the unusual power he generates. Former Diamondbacks teammate Orlando Hudson(notes) put Reynolds’ power with Howard’s and Nelson Cruz’s(notes) as the most formidable in the game. Not pound for pound, but head up. And Reynolds’ hitting coach – former big leaguer Jack Howell – said Reynolds stays in the strike zone more often than you’d expect, a contention supported by data at the comprehensive fangraphs.com.

The Whiff of failure

All-time single-season strikeout leaders.

Year Player SO
2008 Mark Reynolds 204
2008 Ryan Howard 199
2007 Ryan Howard 199
2008 Jack Cust 197
2004 Adam Dunn 195
2006 Adam Dunn 194
1970 Bobby Bonds 189
2009 Mark Reynolds 189
2002 Jose Hernandez 188
1969 Bobby Bonds 187
2000 Preston Wilson 187

“He has very strong, very quick hands,” Howell said of Reynolds, “as quick as I’ve ever seen. We felt if he could learn to load on his backside and trust his hands, the power numbers would come, the average would come and the strikeouts would go down.”

The strikeouts aren’t cooperating with the plan, but everything else seems to be coming, so Howell stays at it and marvels at how often Reynolds homers when he doesn’t strike the ball quite square, and Hinch sees progress and reminds Reynolds to stay in the strike zone, and Reynolds stands in there and takes his hacks and sees what happens.

He does not apologize for missing. Not anymore. He’s going to drive in more than 100 runs. He’s going to push 50 home runs. And, yeah, he’s probably going to set the strikeout record. Again.

“I know my shortcomings, trust me,” he said. “I catch a lot of stuff from people.”

And so what?

“I can only be who I am,” he said.

He gets after it. He tries to enjoy it. And he hits home runs.

“I think it’s one of the meccas,” he said of the home run. “You know, all I ever heard about growing up was Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, how nobody would ever break those records. Then Barry Bonds(notes) came along, and Sammy Sosa(notes) and Mark McGwire. Everybody knows those stats. And the fun of it is jogging around the bases, people yelling and cheering or booing.”

So, yeah, he’d like to win a home-run title. Of course he would.

“It’d be awesome,” he said, “to tell my little kid I led the big leagues in home runs one time. It would be fun. If it happens it would be great.”

A couple hours later another strikeout arrived on a pitch that maybe was just off the plate and ended the inning. Reynolds flung the bat toward the on-deck circle, flung the helmet, flung one batting glove at a time.

He walked to third base, took about 15 seconds.

And so he could only have been thinking, “Whatever.”

Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Sep 9, 2009