First I think I should be upfront in admitting that I don’t tend to like players like Mark Reynolds. I would take a singles-hitting, high on base percentage player over a high strikeout, power-hitting player like Reynolds any day of the week. The strikeout, in my opinion, is the worst thing a hitter can do outside of hit into a double play. It advances no one, gives confidence to the opposing pitcher, gets the crowd back in a game, and is, well, embarrassing. Moreover, this Orioles lineup does not need another strikeout king with Adam Jones and others already working on the ability to draw a few more walks. But Reynolds does have several mitigating factors that have made him far more than meets the eye, and turned around my opinion of him as a possible long-term answer at third base.
There is a certain paradox with Mark Reynolds. For a player who strikes out a lot, he sure does show patience at the plate. In fact, despite a .198 batting average, despite a whopping 211 strikeouts, Reynolds still forced pitchers to throw more times his way in 2010 than any other third baseman in the majors, with 4.31 pitches per at bat. Only 4 players actually wound up higher than him in all of major league baseball regardless of position. So he did appear to show patience at the plate, even if he didn’t get a good result in the end. Incidentally, you have to slide all the way down to #30 on the list to find an Oriole, Nick Markakis, who forced 4.04 pitches per at-bat.
This naturally has led to Reynolds leading all third basemen in walks, good enough for 13th among all eligible players last season. Needless to say, this is not what one expects when they think of a high-strikeout player. Moreover, his terribly low average in 2010 could be mitigated by his extraordinarily low BABIP, batting average on balls in play. The theory (backed up by statistical analysis) goes that once a ball is actually struck and put in play, it roughly has just the same chance as any other ball to become a hit. Most years the average BABIP is somewhere between .290 and .300, and in 2010 the average BABIP was .297. In recent years Reynolds had sported a BABIP of well over .300, but in 2010 it crashed down to .257. Given that BABIP is a statistic that seems to fluctuate every year for most players, one would expect his BABIP to approach average this season, which could raise his average to above the Mendoza Line into the .240’s. Most projections (Bill James, Fangraphs, etc.) have the Orioles’ third baseman hitting somewhere in the neighborhood of .235/.330/.500, with 35 home runs and 90 RBI.
There has been much disagreement about Reynolds’ fielding ability, and while the Orioles seem highly optimistic about his abilities in the hot corner, you can’t exactly take their word for it. Most scouts have reported a steady improvement, which is borne out by a UZR of 2.5 in 2010. Not great by any stretch, but a far cry from his -7.4 in 2009 and -11.3 in 2008. It should be kept in mind that third is not Reynolds’ natural position, having entered the Diamondbacks organization as a shortstop. It should also be mentioned that Ty Wiggington had a -2.0 UZR at third base in 2010, so even along those lines Reynolds is a marked upgrade.
All told, Mark Reynolds was good for 2.4 WAR (wins above replacement), whereas his predecessor Wiggington was worth 0.3 WAR. While the strikeouts are daunting, they aren’t so bad if Reynolds can keep up the walks and his BABIP takes its statistically likely bounce back towards average. For 2011 he is a certain upgrade over the alternatives within the organization, and there is a decent chance that he will be an upgrade for 2012 and beyond. Given his very affordable salary, there are more reasons to be excited about Reynolds’ ability than to deadpan it. The flashy numbers send one message, but it’s clear that Mark Reynolds is a unique player, and more than meets the eye.