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Have the St. Louis Cardinals changed Mark Reynolds as a hitter?

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The St. Louis Cardinals signed veteran free agent Mark Reynolds over the offseason to be a bench bat. Having swatted 20 or more home runs in each of the seven seasons prior to contracting with the Cardinals, Reynolds had the power to address an area of need for St. Louis. Reynolds is also a righthanded swinger, which made him a complement to putative primary first baseman Matt Adams, who had struggled against lefties during his brief big-league career. Even though Reynolds had not hit for much of a platoon split in recent years, he nonetheless represented a better option against southpaws than Adams.

The power shortage in St. Louis since hitting coach John Mabry replaced baseball's one-time single-season home run king Mark McGwire. Entering the 2015 season, many a Cardinal had seen his power production drop under the tutelage of Mabry and the St. Louis field staff. One wondered whether Mabry might tinker with Reynolds and sap the long hitting strength the veteran slugger still possessed. But at the club's Winter Warmup, the Cardinals claimed that they had no intention of changing Reynolds's batting profile. Writing for Fox Sports Midwest, Stan McNeal reported at the time:

"One thing we've talked about the last few years is who's the power off the bench," general manager John Mozeliak asked rhetorically. "Historically, we just haven't had a great answer for that. At the minimum, we're hoping he can do that."

If he can, they will happily tolerate the strikeouts. While the Cardinals and Reynolds talked at the Winter Warm-Up about wanting to reduce his K's, it seemed almost like lip service. At 31, Reynolds is not likely to change much. Good for the Cardinals -- they don't plan to ask for an overhaul.

"We understood what we were buying," Mozeliak said.

Manager Mike Matheny seconded the notion.

"Mark's a guy we need to capitalize on what his strengths are and not focus on the weaknesses," Matheny said. "He's got a power component that's very rare." Said Reynolds, after admitting he doesn't worry about the strikeouts like he did in his early years: "Obviously, I would like to not strike out as much. Not too many guys have seven years with 20 homers, so I'm doing something right. I still have a job."

As I wrote at the time, Reynolds was an intriguing signing because his batting profile represented the antithesis of the typical St. Louis hitter, especially those Cardinals populating the active roster. In almost every way, he was an anti-Cardinal as a batsman: few grounders, lots of fly balls, a boatload of whiffs, a high number of Ks, low average, and a ton of power. In fact, one could zero in on Reynolds's fly-ball tendencies as a reason for his power output, as compared to the Cardinals. While fly balls tend to be outs more often than liners or grounders, they also tend to do more damage when then qualify as a hit. This is because most homers are classified as fly balls. As an example, here is the MLB-wide Isolated Power (ISO) for non-pitchers by batted ball type during the 2015 season to date:

  • GB:  .018
  • LD:  .192
  • FB:  .419

The non-pitcher ISO overall in MLB is .146. So liners and flies produce above-average power. But as you can see, fly balls are head and shoulders above any other batted ball type. They also happen to be bad in terms of batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Here is BABIP by batted-ball type for MLB non-pitchers in 2015:

  • GB:  .235
  • LD:  .676
  • FB:  .126

When considering the ISO vs. BABIP give-and-take remember that ISO includes homers while BABIP does not because they are not considered "in play."

The primary reason to dislike the St. Louis contract with Reynolds was the fact that he was a very bad overall hitter last season. This was by and large due to on-base percentage (OBP). We know that OPS is not the best stat by which to measure a player's production because one point of OBP equals about 1.7 points of slugging percentage (SLG). OPS deals with OBP and SLG on a one-to-one basis. That's why it's better to use weighted on-base average (wOBA), which properly weights batting outcomes. It's often even better to use weighted runs created plus (wRC+) when comparing players, because this stat uses wOBA's weighting, but adjusts for park effects and places production on a scale where 100 is exactly league average, every point below 100 is a percent worse than average, and every point above 100 is a percentage better than average.

Even though Reynolds hit 22 homers in 2014 with the Brewers, which fueled a robust .198 ISO. However, his overall production when factoring home park was less than that of Daniel Descalso. Reynolds played his home games in the hitter-friendly Miller Park and Descalso called pitcher-friendly Busch Stadium home. Descalso put up an 88 wRC+ to Reynolds's 87. The primary reason was the rate at which they made outs. Reynolds was an out-making machine for Milwaukee, managing just a .287 OBP, which offset his power production. Even though Descalso hit for virtually no power (.085 ISO), his well-abover-average .333 OBP made him somewhat less of a bad hitter overall.

Both Reynolds and Descalso were bad overall. They were bad in different ways. And Reynolds was horrible because of his low OBP.

Given the statements made by Cardinals management at the Winter Warmup, what we know about where power comes from, and the contours of Reynolds's 2014 performance, I was intrigued by a recent Jenifer Langosch piece at MLB.com: "Reynolds aims for better on-base percentage." In it, Lagnosch reports:

The results have been as expected. Reynolds entered Sunday with a higher batting average (.258) and on-base percentage (.329) than his average career marks in both categories. His slugging percentage of .391 is lower than any he's posted in eight previous Major League seasons. But he's OK with that.

"I like looking up at the scoreboard and [seeing that I'm] not hitting .190," said Reynolds, who batted .196 over 433 plate appearances with Milwaukee a year ago. "It's more about just putting balls in play ... The homers will come and normally come in bunches. Hopefully [Saturday's blast against the Royals] will kind of kick start me a little bit. I like singles, too."

****

"I'm just trying to put more balls in play and see what happens," he said. "I kind of pick my spots when I want to open up and try to pull the ball. When everybody is throwing 97 [mph] with cutters these days, you have to make adjustments. Right now, that's what I've been doing."

Surprisingly, though, Reynolds' new approach has not curtailed his strikeouts. . . .

I thought we might take a look at Reynolds's 2015 batting stats to see if they evidence a change in approach. First, we'll start with the stats that measure results. I've decided to compare his career numbers against 2014 and 2015, since this seems to reflect the perspective of Langosch's article.


BB%

K%

BABIP

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

ISO

wOBA

wRC+

Career

11.5

31.8

.296

.231

.325

.455

.780

.225

.339

106

2014

10.9

28.2

.218

.196

.287

.394

.681

.198

.302

87

2015

9.5

29.6

.356

.259

.330

.407

.737

.148

.326

107

I've highlighted a few columns. Reynolds is walking less often than he has over his big-league career or did in 2014. He is striking out at virtually the same rate. Reynolds is also hitting for quite a bit less power while a much higher BABIP.

The higher BABIP is propping up his BA, which is a bit higher than the league average for non-pitchers, which is in turn boosting his OBP. There are two ways to increase OBP: more walks or more hits. Reynolds is notching more hits in 2015. Is this because of a change in approach? Let's look at his plate discipline peripherals.


Sw%

Z-Sw%

Z-C%

O-Sw%

O-C%

C%

SwStr%

BB%

K%

Career

46.5

67.5

72.7

26.9

47.5

65.1

16.3

11.5

31.8

2014

48.7

70.5

75.6

29.0

52.5

68.4

15.3

10.9

28.2

2015

47.6

68.9

78.2

32.6

55.9

69.2

14.4

9.5

29.6

A lower share of Reynolds's strikes against are swings and misses. He is swinging at fewer pitches in the zone and making contact with pitches in the zone more often. That being said, Reynolds is also swinging at more pitches outside the zone and making more contact with such offerings. There isn't much here to support a major shift in approach.

Now let's have a look at batted-ball stats to see if perhaps they reflect that Reynolds is doing something different with the bat when he decides to swing it.


LD%

GB%

FB%

IFFB%

HR/FB

Soft%

Med%

Hard%

BABIP

Career

16.9

37.0

46.1

12.7

19.6

18.6

46.1

35.3

.296

2014

13.8

38.1

48.1

17.6

17.6

19.9

47.9

32.2

.218

2015

16.5

47.7

35.8

5.1

12.8

28.4

41.3

30.3

.356

Yes, it's a small sample, but it appears that there might be something here. Perhaps Reynolds has been Mabrified. His fly-ball rate is down by over 12 percentage points from a year ago and more then 10 percentage points from his career rate. His grounder rate has shot up a tad under 10 percentage points from 2014 and a bit over 10 percentage points from his career. Reynolds is also hitting the ball less hard more often: His Soft% is much higher this year than last year or for his career. As a Cardinals, Reynolds's batted-ball profile is closer to that of Jon Jay than Reynolds.

It appears that Reynolds has not changed his approach all that much when decided what pitches to swing at. However, the stats indicate that Reynolds may be trying to do something different when swinging, something less powerful and more contact oriented. It's unlikely to result in the sky-high BABIP Reynolds has posted so far this season, though a higher BABIP is to be expected compared to last season. Moreover, if Reynolds maintains his current batted-ball profile, it seems likely he'll also continue to hit for a lower ISO. It seems that Reynolds is trying to hit the ball more like a Cardinal.

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Correction: The original version of this post mixed up the relational value of OBP vs. SLG. It has been updated.