It's the way I hit. I don't know what to attribute it to. Of course, I don't enjoy striking out, but if it happens, it happens; whatever... If you put the ball in play you have a chance to get on base. If you strike out you have no chance of getting on base. They're not good outs, but it's the nature of the beast. Obviously, I don't like it, and a lot of people don't. But if they can tolerate it and keep putting me out there I'm going to keep trying to do my thing.
-- Mark Reynolds, Arizona Republic
Initially, I found myself infuriated by the above comment. This was originally going to be a critical piece on a player, apparently complacent almost to the point of arrogance, rather than trying to improve his approach at the plate. But upon further consideration [and some discussion with 'Skins], an aggrived reaction - while understandable - is likely somewhat harsh, since we don't know quite what the question was that triggered the quote. While certainly legitimate [Reynolds is one K behind Howard, with both on pace to smash the all-time single-season record], it's hard to inquire about it in a way that would not trigger some kind of defensive reaction from the young player concerned.
The ferocious volume of strikeouts from Reynolds does remain an area of concern. He acknowledges that they are 'bad' outs, and statistical analysis backs this up - they are much less likely to advance any baserunners and almost never drive in a run, unlike groundouts and flyouts, which can do both. It's something he did attempt to address before the season began. However, he abandoned efforts to change after just two weeks of trying to cut back on the K's in spring training, saying:
That’s not me. I’m swinging at the first strike I see. Hanging curveball, hanging slider, fastball, whatever. That’s what got me here, so I don’t think I need to change it. "I just realized, ‘Why am I trying to change something that got me to the major leagues?’ Strikeouts are going to be there. I’ve accepted it. I don’t care what anybody writes about it or anybody says. It’s just me.
Though I have to point out, what got Mark Reynolds to the major-leagues was actually injuries to Chad Tracy and Triple-A backup Brian Barden, along with the legal cloud hanging over Alberto Callaspo at the time. That forced the Diamondbacks to dive down to Double-A, where they found Reynolds batting over .300. There, he was not fanning at the epic rate we are seeing; his K-rate during that partial season at Mobile was 23.9%, an improvement over the 2006 figure, between High-A and Double-A, of 28.2%. This season, Reynolds is striking out in 37.4% of his at-bats.
The other thing he did while in the minors, was walk a good deal more. Combining 2006 and 2007, his K:BB ratio was better than 2:1 [141-72, to be exact], leading to an OBP of almost .400 before his call-up. While fans like to put Reynolds alongside Adam Dunn because of their power and strikeouts - "Dunn and Dunner" signs in the stands - the latter's plate discipline in the majors is what fundamentally separates them. In his age 24 seasons, Dunn walked 108 times, sixth-most in the National League, for a K:BB ratio of 1.81 and an OBP of .388.This year, Reynold's ratio is far higher: 3.26, with a resulting on-base percentage of just .322. Part of this is that Dunn cracked 46 homers, so was inevitably going to be pitched more carefully.
In the context of Reynolds apparent unwillingness to change, I note with some interest this interview with Mark at the end of 2006, where he said, "I just tried to change my approach from my first year. I was pull-happy…tried to hit home runs every at-bat. This year, I just tried to stay right-center and I tend to stay on a lot more pitches... So it’s helping me with my average a lot." What this shows is that Reynolds has proven himself capable of adjusting the way he approaches the plate, in order to improve his production. But is it possible for him to cut back on all those K's?
It would be counter-productive to expect Reynolds to become David Eckstein - difficult to strike out, but possessing basically no power at all. K's are part and parcel of his make-up, and we're not asking for them to be eliminated entirely from his game-logs. Hitting coach Rick Schu has said he doesn't mind Reynolds striking out as long as he isn't chasing pitches out of the strike zone. That might be the crux of the matter. Certainly, it's one thing to see a batter take a cut at a ball that would have been a strike; quite another to watch them flail at something around their neck or in the opposite batter's box.
Fangraphs.com offers some insight, as they include a range of metrics that show how often a batter swings at pitches in and out of the strike-zone, as well as the contact rate. Here are the average figures for hitters in 2007 and Mark's stats for this season:
O-Swg Z-Swg Swing O-Cnt Z-Cnt Cntct Zone 25.0% 66.6% 45.9% 60.8% 88.2% 80.8% 50.3% - Avg. 2007 24.04% 69.71% 47.05% 39.27% 70.12% 62.30% 50.39% - Mark 2008
To explain these, the average player tries to hit 45.9% of pitches - they swing at two-thirds of pitches in the strike-zone, and only one-quarter outside. When they do swing, they make contact over 80% of the time. For strikes, that figure increases to 88%, but it drops to barely 60% when they leave the strike-zone. Finally, almost exactly half the pitches thrown were in the strike-zone. Perhaps surprisingly, analysis indicates there isn't much correlation between O-Swg - the percentage of times a player swings at balls out of the zone, perhaps the most obvious measure of plate discipline - and strikeout-rate. Instead, research shows it's simply whether you make contact that's far more important.
Looking at Reynolds' figures drives this home. The percentage of times he swings at 'bad' pitches is almost identical to the major-league average. In other words, it doesn't seem to be his batting eye which is the cause of the strikeouts; the Zone figure tells us he's not being thrown a large number of pitches out of the strike-zone either. But look at the contact figure. 62.3% is the lowest figure among any of the 188 major-league batters with 400+ PAs this year. The only others under 70% are Howard, plus Jack Cust and Carlos Peña - who are #1 and #2 in strikeouts over in the American League.
Our other K-king, Chris Young, also ranks in the thirty hitters making least contact, at 77.15% - which is somewhat odd since CY is very selective when it comes to swinging, one of only seventeen players who take more than 60% of pitches they receive. At the other end of the spectrum, Conor Jackson has the best contact rate among qualifying Diamondbacks, at 93.96%, which ties in with his low K rate. I also note that it's out of the zone where Reynolds really struggles to get good wood, hitting less than two out of every five balls at which he swings. That's below half the rate of the best hitter outside the zone, Jadier Molina at 83.91%.
The bad news is, contact rate is generally very consistent from year to year. When David Appelman compared Contact % for 2005 and 2006, he found that only five players improved their rate by more than five percent, year on year. It thus seems Reynolds is probably on the mark [pun not intended] when he says, "It's the way I hit," even if it's really the lack of contact - obviously - that leads to the strikeouts. While it would be great if our third-baseman could improve the contact rate when he swings, it's not something on which we should rely.