Ask Alex: Can Jose Reyes repeat as NL batting champ?

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

We all have questions about the 2012 season and Alex Remington luckily has some answers. The Stew's resident stats guru will address some of the big ones as the year progresses.

The Situation: Jose Reyes, the Miami Marlins' new shortstop, is a hard player to project.  On the one hand, the 28-year-old is coming off an amazing season, making his fourth All-Star team while leading the league in batting average. On the other hand, he only played 126 games, and he made his third and fourth trips to the DL in the past three seasons alone.

More troubling, his injuries in 2011 were hamstring-related. Hamstring problems plagued Jose for the first five years of his career: he missed games with hammie issues in his rookie 2003, as well as 2004, 2007, and 2008. For a player who makes his living with his speed, that's genuinely frightening, and it led to the validation of one of Mets owner Fred Wilpon's predictions early last year.

"He thinks he's going to get Carl Crawford money," Wilpon told The New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin. "He's had everything wrong with him. He won't get it."

Wilpon was right, but you can't feel too bad for his former player. Reyes got six years and $106 million (rather than Crawford's seven years/$142 million — although the Red Sox would probably ask for a mulligan on that one if they got the chance.)

Reyes is a great player when healthy. But even if he's fully healthy next year, will he be able to match his 2012 production? Or did he just luck his way into a career year when free agency was on the horizon?

The Question: Can Jose Reyes repeat as NL batting champ?

The Analysis: Fangraphs' Dave Cameron is a big believer in Reyes and in the wisdom of the contract the Miami Marlins handed him this past December:

I don't think there's any question that Jose Reyes is legitimately one of the very best players in baseball. Despite breaking into the majors in 2003 at age 20 and struggling to hit big league pitching at a point when most guys are still working their way up through the minors ... he's performed at an offensive level 28 percent better than his peers in his career to date...

Without those injuries, Reyes could have made a case for a contract twice the size of the one he signed with Miami.

Essentially, Cameron argues, a healthy Reyes is worth so much more than $106 million that the Marlins could afford for him to miss a month every year and still get $106 million worth of value from him. Cameron concludes by writing: "He just has to stay away from something like a skillset-altering leg injury. Essentially, if he can avoid the Grady Sizemore career path, he's a pretty good bet to be worth this contract and then some."

In terms of batting average and overall WAR, 2011 was the best year of Reyes's career, but in other ways it was merely a return to form after a lost 2009 and a below-his-standards 2010. His 39 steals were his most since 2008; so were his major-league leading 16 triples, his 101 runs scored, and his 43 walks. All of those numbers are below his averages from 2005-2008, when he was age 22 to age 25. That's partly because he averaged 158 games a year over those four seasons, and no one's expecting that again.

Still, Reyes certainly isn't anywhere Sizemore yet. He hasn't slowed much: his Speed Score (measured by looking at his stolen base attempts, triples, and ability to score while in scoring position) was 8.4 last year, actually higher than the 8.1 he posted in 2008. But according to advanced stats, his glove doesn't appear to be what it used to be. Whereas he used to be a solidly above-average defender, according to most measures, in 2010 and 2011 he was either average or well below-average. Considering that he's 28, and defense is usually the first skill to go, it's likely that he'll never have the glove he once did.

Worse, his walk rate was down to 7.3 percent last year. When Reyes came up to the majors as a free-swinging 20-year old rookie, his walk rate was an awful 4.5 percent in 2003 and a horrific 2.2 percent in 2004. His leap to superstardom occurred in 2006, when he managed to double his walk rate to 7.5 percent, and raised it again to 10.1 percent in 2007. It does not bode well for the future that his walk rate has backslid so precipitously.

His batting average last year was naturally helped by a career-high .353 Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP). Because of his speed and propensity to hit line drives, Reyes has a rather high career BABIP, .314. But he beat that by 39 points last year, and so, unsurprisingly, his batting average was 45 points higher than his career average. That is likely to come back down to earth. On the other hand, with his .292 career average, he's within spitting distance of hitting .300 again — and if he gets lucky a second year in a row, he could certainly contend for another batting title. Much will depend on how hitter-friendly the new Marlins Ballpark turns out to be, and we'll learn that as we watch this year.

The Forecast for 2012: It's impossible to know how healthy Reyes will be. A healthy Reyes will still be a great player. But his slipping defense and walk rates indicate that his best years may already be behind him. And his balky legs could take him off the field at any given time.

The leading projection systems are remarkably similar in their outlook for him. The only real difference is the number of games they think he'll play. ZiPS projects .302/.353/.471 with 118 games played, the Bill James Handbook says .303/.358/.447 with 133 games played, and CAIRO sees .303/.355/.457 with 91 games played.

In order to qualify for the batting title, Reyes will need to accrue 3.1 at-bats for each team game, meaning 502 at-bats in all. In practice, because Reyes averages around 4.25 at-bats per game (4.24 for his career, 4.26 over the past four seasons), that means that he needs to play 118 games. Even considering his leg problems, it's very likely that he'll hit that target, and everyone is predicting that he'll hit .300: I think that the systems' projection of numbers around .300/.350/.450 are very likely. So he'll almost certainly have the number of at-bats necessary to contend for another batting title, and if he gets hot in the summer, he might be able to seriously challenge for it once more.

But I doubt it.

Related fantasy content from Yahoo! Sports:

Other Ask Alex questions for 2012

Will Julio Teheran or Matt Moore win rookie of the year?
• Will Alex Avila be an All-Star again?
• Can Michael Pineda keep his ERA under 4 in the AL East?
• Can Adam Dunn return to 30 home run territory?
• Can Jason Heyward return to his rookie form?
• Can Matt Kemp go 50/50?

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