Like many hardcore fantasy baseball owners, I spend a lot of time between October and March trying to guess what players are going to do in April through September. It's always gratifying to hit upon a guy by correctly predicting a breakout year that few others saw coming. But there's always a handful of guys who find fantasy success that were not even on the deepest league radars at the beginning of April (see: Jeanmar Gomez), which I look at as both an incredibly frustrating, and incredibly fun, part of the game. I also tend to be fairly fascinated by guys who, without any of the so-called experts knowing it's coming, seem to be able to change their approach significantly enough that it turns them into different players, both in real-life and in fantasy. It seems like Mark Reynolds is doing just that so far this year, and watching him at the plate recently has made me curious enough to look into his season a little more closely.
When the season began, it was assumed that Reynolds would be on the short side of a platoon with Ben Paulsen in Colorado. But Reynolds clearly had a manager that believed in him from the get-go, and things didn't go exactly according to that plan as early as opening day -- Reynolds found himself in the starting lineup with a righty-righty matchup against Zack Greinke. Before some of Paulsen's fantasy owners, myself included, knew what was happening, Reynolds had the job largely to himself and Paulsen was in AAA. If you were to have told me back in March that this scenario would occur, I would have assumed the following: Mark Reynolds showed up in Colorado, and tricked everyone by getting off to what looked like a hot start by doing the one thing that has given him fantasy value in his career: hitting home runs, this time in the easiest ballpark in major league baseball to hit them in. But here we are about to begin June, approximately one-third of the way through the baseball season, and Mark Reynolds continues to thrive as the Rockies' almost-everyday first baseman... while on pace for a grand total of six homers on the season. He has gone yard this year exactly as many times as the likes of Delino DeShields, who was demoted to the minors weeks ago, and Jeff Francouer, whom I'm guessing at least one person reading this article was unaware was still on an active major league roster (no offense, Frenchy... we'll always have that magical summer of 2006). So what's going on?
Reynolds three-year averages: 135 games played, .216 BA, .303 OBP, 19 HR, 53 RBI. This season, he is on pace to play in 145 games, with a .307 BA, .372 OBP, the aforementioned 6 home runs, and 52 RBI. The fact that he is right on target to hit his three-year average in RBI while hitting less than one-third as many home runs was the first thing I noticed... he is obviously having productive at bats, especially with men on base. His BABIP, not surprisingly, is an insanely high .417, second in the majors to only Jonathan Villar. But this comes just two year after his BABIP with the Brewers in 2014 was an eye-poppingly low .218... it certainly seems like something is going on that does not just involve random luck.
Reynolds has not gotten more selective at the plate... his BB% on the season currently stands at 9.8%, while his career average is 11.4%. There's nothing really crazy going on with his plate discipline numbers. But one thing that does stand out is some of his heat maps. Check out the difference between his contact % vs. all pitchers from 2007-2015 -- his entire career up until this year...
...versus the same chart for 2016:
Reynolds is suddenly hitting the ball just about everywhere is pitched to him. The man who up until this year looked like he'd be hard-pressed to make contact against little leaguers on a regular basis, suddenly only has a few visible holes in his swing. Sure, it's still a small sample size, but watching him this year, he really does look like a different hitter. I noticed recently that, after swinging and missing during an at bat in which he struck out, he had a look not only of the typical frustration one would expect, but a hint of genuine surprise to go along with it. While in the past it seemed you could count on Reynolds for at least a couple strikeouts any night he was in the starting lineup, it truly seems like striking out is the last thing that he expects will happen when he steps up to the plate right now. I believe he has made a conscious effort to turn himself into a contact hitter. He seems to have a newfound confidence given the success he's had going with pitches and driving them up the middle or the other way for singles, and the home run swing that has been the bread and butter of the major league career is basically nowhere to be found.
What does this mean for the rest of the season, and should fantasy owners in anything but NL-only leagues be paying attention? Is it possible that the best of all worlds come together, and that Mark Reynolds combines his sudden ability to make contact with his home run swing of the past, and these elements combine with a hot summer in the rarefied air of Colorado to produce an unexpected fantasy beast?
Probably not... but I'm going to be keeping an eye on him just in case. Certainly the BABIP is unsustainable, and when the hits stop falling in with such regularity, it will be interesting to see if Reynolds stays with his current approach, or reverts back to swinging for the fences, occasionally hitting one out but usually failing to make contact at all. ZIPS and Steamer are actually fairly optimistic, with batting average projections of .253 and .261 for the rest of the season, significantly higher than his career-average .232. But they are also not buying into his sudden lack of power -- while he is on pace for only four more home runs this year, ZIPS thinks he'll hit 15 more, and Steamer 14. My gut is that things will continue more similarly to the way they have been, and that he is more likely to hit .280 from here on out than he is to hit 15 bombs. But it will definitely be interesting to see what happens. If he can pull off those power numbers that ZIPS and Steamer project and somehow maintain his successful new line-drive approach -- while continuing to have the BABIP gods smiling down on him -- he'll wind up contributing enough to make him valuable in many a fantasy league between now and September.