After the Mets signed Jose Reyes last year, it might have been tough to root for him, but it’s impossible to deny how valuable his on-field contributions were in getting the Mets to the playoffs. This year, the uncertainty of health in the Mets’ infield means the team is likely going to rely heavily on Reyes to be a safety net, and he could wind up seeing significant playing time.
Last year, playing Reyes every day worked out fine for the Mets, as he had a 108 wRC+ in 60 games—his best mark since 2014—while learning to play third base. The main driver of his offensive production was his power. He posted his highest slugging percentage since 2011 with a .443 and his highest ISO since 2008 at .176. He hit a career-best one home run for every 34.9 plate appearances. His previous high was one per 37 plate appearances in 2006.
There’s no guarantee that Reyes can repeat that in 2017. Steamer, for example, is only projecting Reyes for an 86 wRC+ and a .375 SLG this year. That won’t cut it with his minus defense at third, and the Mets will be in trouble if Reyes plays a significant amount at that level.
But there is reason for optimism. What Steamer might be missing are the tangible changes Reyes made to his game last year. He made a choice that is common among players late in their careers: He sacrificed contact for power. Last year, Reyes made contact at the worst rate of his career and struck out far more often than he ever had before.
This type of drastic change in approach is the usual by-product of selling out for power, but is not necessarily a bad development as long the power comes. And for Reyes, it did. Moreover, his power spike came along with a career-high fly ball rate. For the first time in his career, Reyes hit more fly balls than ground balls.
But here’s where it gets interesting: In 2014 and 2015, this would have been a recipe for disaster for Reyes. He slugged just .356 and .284 on fly balls in those two years, respectively. Last year, Reyes slugged .533 on fly balls. He wasn’t pulling more—his pull rate was actually his lowest since 2007—and it wasn’t entirely luck, either, as his 9.0% HR/FB ratio was not that far off his career norms.
So how were Reyes’s fly balls so succesful? How was the 33-year-old able to generate so much more power so late in his career? The answer is how he hit those fly balls.
Reyes simply hit fly balls harder than he did in 2015. Last year, his average exit velocity on fly balls of 86.5 miles per hour was a big increase in his 83.2 miles per hour in 2015. And in 2015, Reyes’s average fly ball traveled only 279 feet, while it averaged 308 feet last year.
The most telling changes come from Reyes’s launch angle—which can be found at Baseball Savant and effectively measures the angle at which the ball comes off the bat. Fly balls are estimated to be within 25 and 50 degrees. Generally, fly balls shouldn’t be too high, because the higher a ball is hit, the more the batter got under it. In 2015, Reyes’s average launch angle on fly balls was 37.1 degrees, but last year, that dropped to 34.9 degrees.
A roughly three-point drop may seem small or subtle, but there actually is a huge difference between the two data points. Baseball Savant says that fly balls hit between 37 and 38 degrees went for a .418 slugging percentage in 2016, which is decent. But fly balls hit between 34 and 35 degrees went for a .784 slugging percentage last season, which is tremendous.
So we may have found the answer to Reyes’s success. It seems when Reyes got to the Mets, hitting coach Kevin Long worked with him in not only hitting more fly balls, but getting under them less and hitting them with more authority.
With all of that in mind, it’s also important to note that this came in a relatively small sample size of 279 plate appearances over 60 games. Whether Reyes can stick to these adjustments over a full season remains to be seen. To repeat his 2016 season and be a major contributor to the Mets this year, Reyes needs to continue hitting fly balls the way he did last year in order for his offense to be palatable at a corner infield position.