Last Saturday night, Mark Reynolds had a night for the ages. In maybe the best offensive game of his career, he drove in ten runs as the Nationals demolished the Marlins. It’s just the fifteenth time since Baseball Reference’s stats begin and only the eleventh since integration that this feat has been accomplished. August company, to say the least.
It’s an amazing feat, and from a man that many probably nearly forgot about. Two or three years ago, Reynolds seemed to be on his way out of baseball. And yet, here he is in 2018, a fixture in a fringe playoff offense, having the best year of his career, and setting records. It’s a second life for Mark Reynolds and we’re all the better for it.
Personally, I thought the end had come sometime in 2013. I watched Reynolds closely that season because he was suddenly and unaccountably the focal point of the Cleveland Indians offense, for a month or two at least. While the rest of the Tribe bats took an extended Spring Training stint in April he blasted the ball everywhere. In April he posted a 1.016 OPS with eight home runs, looking every bit the hitter that it was hoped he’d become when he had that excellent 44 homer season in 2009.
But the weeks wore on, the hits faded, the OPS dropped to .696 in May, .541 in June and .331 in July. The Indians just released him in early August and other than a blip in late September with the Yankees it was in total a terrible season in a pretty forgettable and disappointing career to that point. Not even a stint with the Rockies, a move everyone prayed for because that environment and that swing, helped to realize the lightning that his huge swing held.
But something happened with Reynolds. For one thing, the game has caught up to him in a very odd way. When he debuted in 2007, the league-wide strikeout rate was 17.1 percent. As powerful as he was, Reynolds was truly spectacular at striking out. He set the all-time single season record for K’s in 2008, then broke that the next year with the still-standing record 223 strikeouts.
The attitude toward whiffing was changing at that point of course, but hadn’t totally shifted. The general conversation around him was always about how he was too swing happy, that the sheer volume of strikeouts would limit his ceiling. That league-wide K rate has steadily climbed though each season, and this year batters are striking out 22.1 percent of the time. Aaron Judge and Kris Bryant are two elite players that strike out a ton. Old men on porches are having heart palpitations.
Reynolds has headed the opposite way, striking out only 26.4 percent of the time this year when his career rate is 30.8. This is despite a heightened swinging strike rate – 15.3 percent, his highest in four years, though a far cry from the 17’s and 18’s he posted early on – and his pulling the ball 48.3 percent of the time, again the highest mark since 2014. Both these trends typically lead to more strikeouts, not less.
Yet he’s merely an above average punch-out target, not the best (worst?) in the business. Perhaps it’s a change in approach – in 0-2 counts he’s only pulling the ball 33.3 percent of the time and on 1-2 counts he’s only pulling it 21.4 percent of the time. So he swings and misses a lot, but maybe he’s shortening up a bit to get hits when he’s behind. He does have a lot of natural power. He doesn’t have to swing 100 percent every time. Right?
The caveat to all this centers around those 38 games he’s played. It’s barely a quarter of a season, and we’ve heard this whole song before. Even this year his monthly OPS splits have gone from 1.174 in May to .335 in June and now 1.817 so far in July. Plus, his infield hit rate is 14.3 percent, twice his career average. That could be helping him a bit. Still, he’s hitting the ball hard more often than ever; the 43 percent Hard Hit Rate is a career high by a comfortable margin. It’s all a bit odd, and hard to read as far as finding some kind of sustainability. His career high Z-Swing rate (78.3 percent) perhaps tells a hint of a story that he’s being aggressively selective. Or selectively aggressive, if that’s a thing.
So here we have Mark Reynolds in one of the best stretches of his career, coming of his best game ever. Somehow he’s qualified for a MLB pension (10 years of service time), an almost unthinkable achievement considering how swing-happy and one-dimensional he was for half his career. The .333 BABIP suggests some regression, and he’s so especially pull-happy you’d think he’d see more shifts than he has already.
He probably won’t have another ten RBI game this year – though with Harper, Rendon, Turner and perhaps Eaton in front of him he’ll have chances – but he’s having a great and possibly sustainable season. He was ahead of his time when he broke in, but everyone else learned what Reynolds already knew when he was a rookie. His beer league softball approach, once thought to be the death of baseball by old school types, is what we all expect now. Even when he retires, his spirit and that of men like him, Adam Dunn and Jack Cust, will live on forever.
Merritt Rohlfing writes baseball at Beyond the Box Score and Indians stuff at Let’s Go Tribe, where he co-hosts a podcast. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillLunch.