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How Jose Reyes can become an impact hitter again

A look inside the numbers suggests that plate discipline may be key to a resurgence for the controversial veteran.

Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Jose Reyes is not the player we all remember. His stolen base totals have dwindled, and he only hit six triples over the last three seasons. In addition, he has recently seen a marked decline in his walk rate, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.

While this does indeed signal a skill set in decline, it does not tell the whole story. In fact, there is perhaps even reason to believe that if he adjusts his approach, Reyes could enjoy a late-career renaissance.

Part of Reyes’s decline can be traced to a devolution of plate discipline. Starting in 2010, Reyes swung at a substantially greater percentage of pitches outside the strike zone (O-Swing%), a figure that has increased incrementally as the years have gone by.

Why this trend started is difficult to nail down. It may have had to do with then-hitting coach Howard Johnson's change in approach towards generating more power after the team hit a ridiculously low 95 homers in 2009. It may have been impatience to make an impact on Reyes’s part after losing most of 2009 to injury.

Whatever the reason, he was able to cover for this habit when at the height of his powers; he won a batting title with a then-career-high 31.4% O-Swing% in 2011. But he also made contact with a career-high 83.3% of his swings outside the zone (O-Contact%) at that time. While his O-Contact rate has declined of late, it is still above his pre-2010 numbers:

This does tell another part of the story, but it is also worth seeing how far outside the zone Reyes is straying. Below is his Swing% in various zones as a left-handed hitter last year. The black square in the center represents the strike zone; take note of the far fringes of the heat map circled in red:
Reyes 2012 heatmap Swing%

Now compare this with his 2012 season with the Marlins:

While overall he swung at 4.5% more pitches out of the zone in 2015 than in 2012, the heat maps show that Reyes swung at significantly more pitches way out of the strike zone in 2015. He is now particularly more susceptible to chase balls low and away than before.

This trend of chasing way out of the strike zone started in 2013—another year that saw him coming back from injury—and continued in 2014 as well.

Naturally, since he has begun to swing—and miss—at more pitches outside the zone, pitchers have duly given him more pitches outside the zone. Given Reyes’s drop in base-stealing numbers, it would also make sense that pitchers are less worried about putting him on with a walk—as opposed to earlier in his career, when he was a less accomplished hitter and pitchers pounded the zone on him at an above-league-average rate. The trend in percentage of pitches he has seen in the strike zone (Zone%) is below.

The changes in Reyes as a hitter and the way he has been pitched mirrors league trends in many respects. Still, Reyes has a higher than average O-Swing% in most of the last several years, and has seen a below-average percentage of pitches in the strike zone. He is seeing significantly fewer strikes than he did in '06-'09, when he posted his best stretch of walk rates, including three of his top four years in that regard. Even if he were to revert to league average in terms of O-Swing% and Zone%, it would likely give an uptick to his productivity.

The more free-swinging approach across baseball has been in the interest of generating power, which Reyes is in relatively short supply of (notwithstanding his first week back with the Mets). If he were to buck some global trends and strive for plate discipline greater than league average—thus coming closer to the rates from earlier in his career—he might have significant room for improvement based on his contact rates:

Even in a down year last year, Reyes was making contact at roughly the rate that he did during the glory days of '06-'08. Yet making contact with pitches inside and outside of the zone at a significantly higher rate than league average may mean less with a diminished skill set and approach, as recently there has been a drop in Hard-Hit Ball%, coupled with a rise in Soft-Hit Ball% and a drastic spike in Infield Fly Ball%:
It would be reasonable to think that there would be some interrelation between diminishing skills, below-average plate discipline, and a downward trend in quality and frequency of contact, so it may be just as reasonable to assume that with better plate discipline and already above-average contact skills, late-career Jose Reyes could find greater success than we’ve seen most recently.

Often when a player’s end of career is nigh, they show a big drop in ability to make contact with pitches near the zone, which is not currently an issue for Reyes. While swinging at more pitches out of the zone is also a common problem as players get older, that is often a symptom of having to ‘start the bat earlier’ to make up for lost bat speed, therefore compromising recognition time. This does not yet seem to be the problem with Reyes, at least judging by both his contact rates and the ‘eye test.’

In both of these clips from late last year, we see Reyes keep his hands back while his bat flashes fairly quickly through the hitting zone:

For the hopeful among us, there are precedents for hitters to make late-career adjustments and increase patience and therefore productivity. One such player happens to be the seventh-most similar hitter to Reyes through age 32 according to Baseball Reference, also moved from shortstop to third base, and also returned to his original team late in his career: Tony Fernandez.

At age 33, the switch-hitting Fernandez hit .245/.322/.346 for the Yankees, and then missed all of his age 34 season due to injury and got supplanted by some guy named Derek Jeter. He came back to post a paltry 5.0% walk rate (same as Reyes last year) along with another on-base percentage of .322 for the Indians.

Suddenly though, at age 36, Fernandez appeared to figure something out during a return to the place of his former glory with the Toronto Blue Jays. The next two seasons he posted lines of .321/.387/.459 and .328/.427/.449, along with walk rates of 8.2% and then a career-high 13.4%. Fernandez had previously not hit over .300 in more than a decade, but now put up the best two wRC+ seasons of his career, while playing as a starter, in what was supposed to be his twilight. Because of the lack of advanced stats available for Fernandez’s career, it is difficult to glean whether the greater walk rate was the result of increased patience or whether he was being pitched around because of his rediscovered hitting ability. Nonetheless, his transformation illustrates that improvement for a player of Reyes’s profile is possible.

Fernandez had actually made a similar comeback earlier in his career as well; he seemed to be in steep regression in his age 29-31 seasons before the Mets traded him back to Toronto mid-season in 1993, where he helped the Blue Jays to a World Championship with a .306/.361/.442 line.

Obviously the Fernandez case is a particularly rosy scenario, and there is a human element to the way any player’s aging curve develops. Requirements for a successful transformation include a fair bit of mental fortitude, self-reflection, and willingness to change one’s game—all of which detractors may argue that Reyes has shown relatively little of in his career. There is certainly the concern that Reyes is over-anxious to contribute in his return to New York, and there may be evidence in the numbers above that suggest his desire to ‘make up for lost time’ in coming back from injury in 2010 and 2013 may have changed his hitting approach for the worse in each of those years—the former by becoming more free-swinging, and the latter by chasing ever-more pitches way out of the zone.

Yet if Mets hitting coach Kevin Long can get him to buy into taking a more patient approach, we could see a bit of a revival of Jose Reyes the player. Long has had success this year with helping Yoenis Cespedes be more selective, and (small sample size alert) already Reyes has shown an attempt at patience early in the count—but also an approach that certainly needs refinement. In his first six games, Reyes has only swung at 52.5% of pitches he's seen in the strike zone, had fallen behind 0-1 in the count in 18 of his first 22 plate appearances, and posted an O-Swing% of 38.9. Yet he certainly has proven he still has some pop when he's found a pitch he likes.

It may be unlikely that Reyes will be able to make all the necessary adjustments in-season this year, but with a team option for next year, the Mets could eventually see some significant returns on this contentious gamble they have taken in bringing back a player who was worth 3.5 fWAR the season before last.

All statistics and the heat maps in this article were obtained from FanGraphs.