If you were going to fire up a list of the least discussed teams in Major League Baseball, it’s entirely possible that the Pittsburgh Pirates would be at the top of it. Which, ironically enough, would likely be the first time the Pirates were at the top of any list in quite some time. The Bucs don’t get a lot of air time around these parts. Unsurprising, given that their player most likely to grab at least a marginal share of the spotlight amongst his young peers was Ke’Bryan Hayes, who ended up spending much of the year on the shelf with a wrist injury.
Which likely helps to explain my surprise when perusing the WAR leaderboard over at FanGraphs, I came across an interesting name in the top 10: Bryan Reynolds.
For the most part, that leaderboard looks exactly like you’d expect. Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. and Shohei Ohtani are in the top five, you’ve got a few Red Sox and some Dodgers, and then you get down to guys like Jesse Winker and Nick Castellanos to round out the top 30. But in the midst of all of those notable names and standout performers, there’s a guy from the listless Pittsburgh Pirates sitting at no. 10 in a list of 136 qualifying position players across the Major League landscape with his 4.3 fWAR.
In a vacuum, it’s not extremely surprising that Reynolds made his way to such a high position on the leaderboard. He was, after all, an up-and-comer when he finished fourth in the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2019. The names ahead of him? Pete Alonso, Mike Soroka, and Fernando Tatis, Jr. Not bad company. But then we just kind of forgot about him. Given how the 2020 season transpired for Reynolds, though, that also is not terribly surprising.
That initial rookie season saw Reynolds appear across all three outfield positions for Pittsburgh, turning in a slash of .314/.377/.503/.880, while posting a wRC+ of 130. He didn’t flash a ton of power, with an ISO coming in at .189, but made enough hard contact (about 42 percent) and drove the ball to all fields (Oppo% of about 26) to maintain strong BABIP figures and demonstrate a consistent on-base presence. And then he ran into the wall that was his 2020 campaign.
Those strong numbers in the slash cratered. He went down to .189/.275/.357/.632. The already modest ISO fell to .168, his K% ballooned up to over 27 percent, and it all saw his wRC+ drop to well below average, at 72. Interestingly, though, many of the underlying trends for Reynolds actually did not change from year to year. Virtually every single element of his plate discipline fluctuated only about one percent of that. His Barrel% increased from ‘19 to ‘20 (6.7 to 10.2).
At the same time, there was a startling trend within the batted ball distribution. Both his groundball and line drive rate fell, with the contact from each funneling into the flyballs (jumping up about six percent from 2019 to 2020). Reynolds’ BABIP on flyballs last year was just .108, while his Hard% on that type of contact fell about seven percent between the two years. The root of the trend itself is fairly difficult to identify. More flyballs, less hard contact, and you’re not getting on base. Obviously. As a righty, Reynolds struggled even more with a HR/FB rate of exactly 0.0 percent. Even for a guy who derives much of his power hitting left-handed, he was generating virtually nothing from that side of the plate.
But, in general, Reynolds didn’t appear to be changing his approach against any particular pitch type. And there isn’t anything in his heat map from 2020 and what we’ve seen thus far in 2021 from a zone standpoint to really indicate why such a drastic dip occurred across the board. It’s very likely that, perhaps above everything, it simply boiled down to quality of contact. He didn’t make less of it, but he didn’t make the same type of meaningful connection between bat and ball, while a lot of that lackluster contact was simply finding its way into the air.
Whatever the case may be, we’re witnessing a full-blown rebound from Reynolds. His slash of this writing has returned to .306/.388/.530/.918. His wRC+ is at 145. He’s cut the strikeout rate to 19.7 percent, sitting right with the best marks of his career (at any level), while the walk rate has risen for the third consecutive season (10.7). The big change, though? It’s in the power game.
Reynolds’ ISO on the year is up to .224. He’s already at 21 homers, surpassing his previous career-high from that rookie season with still quite a bit of baseball to play. Interestingly, he experienced the same type of change in batted ball distribution between seasons, as line drives and ground balls dipped and flyballs rose. This time, though, the quality of contact is there. In general, his HardHit% has rebounded and his HR/FB ratio has gone along with it. A percentage of 18.1 represents about a three percent increase, including four right-handed home runs. It’s an important development, but the most essential element of all of this is that Reynolds very much appears to be one of the few genuine building blocks that this Pittsburgh club possesses at present.
As difficult as it is to pinpoint a specific reason for the tailspin in 2020, it might just be that he ran into a massive wall of bad luck. A .231 BABIP indicates as much. But nothing in there changed as far as the skill set was concerned, which is part of what makes this return to form appear so genuine. The only fluctuation has been in the type quality of contact. His approach to pitch types and the zone itself have been wildly consistent.
For the most part, Bryan Reynolds is exactly who the Pirates thought he was after 2019. But he’s still in a bit of modest development. The ability to make contact is there. But he’s shown more of a keen eye in the last two years and flashed the power far more this year. Perhaps that’s something that sticks. In any case, pairing Reynolds with Hayes as two key components of this Pirates team could absolutely end up causing us to talk about them with far more regularity than the every-six-months-or-so in which we currently remember they exist.
Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score.