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You’ve probably heard of Mark Reynolds – he’s the 29-year old third baseman for the Cleveland Indians. He came up with the Diamondbacks, and then spent the last two seasons with the Orioles before coming to the Tribe on a 1-year, $6 million dollar contract. Yet, he’s vastly underrated because he strikes out a lot – which is nearly meaningless, considering what he does well.
Reynolds has never struck out less than 29% of the time in a full season, though this year he’s improved to 26%, which is still miserable (yet well below the league leader, Chris Carter, at 38%). He holds the record for the most strikeouts in a season, for his 223 in 2009 – presumably, there is no medal or plaque for this particular honor.
He’s also a slugger: he’s average more than 30 home runs per season since arriving in the majors in 2007. In weighted runs created (wRC+), he’s averaged 109 over the same time (weighted runs created is a relative stat, where a score of 100 is considered league average; in other words, over his career, he’s averaged creating 9% more runs than the average player). Thus far in 2013, his stats are:
Reynolds’ numbers are projected to dip a bit for the full season, perhaps because pitchers are giving him fewer fastballs in favor of changeups this season. Still, ZiPS forecasts 32 HR, 100 RBI, and a 120 wRC+. On the surface, Reynolds is a bad hitter who makes them count when he does make contact. His BABIP of 0.294 is within the typical average range for a major leaguer, and more importantly it’s near his career average of 0.305 – this season, we wouldn’t expect it to go down much. And since he’s entered the league, defenses have clearly adjusted to his strengths: in his first three years with the Diamondbacks, his BABIP never went below 0.323. Since then he’s never topped 0.284, which came last year with the Orioles.
Overall, he’s clearly got his strengths and his weaknesses, but the point is: for Reynolds, his weaknesses matter less. A good comparison for Reynolds is a much more high profile player: Robinson Cano. (All stats as of games completed on May 24th.)
Cano is much better in areas where Reynolds isn’t – like AVG, and K% – but it doesn’t make much of a difference in wRC+. Keep in mind that Reynolds is making $6 million this year on a one-year deal, and Cano is set to get paid a lot more than that this winter.
Strikeout rate is a very weak determinant of wRC+. Using a correlation matrix and data from the 2012 season, factors like ISO – a measure of power in terms of extra-base hits, by which Mark Reynolds currently ranks 10th in baseball – are much more important to the creation of runs.
Correlation factor is an indication of the relationship between two metrics. A correlation of 1.00 would indicate a perfectly linear direct relationship. SLG is the closest to a direct linear relationship with wRC+, with OBP close behind. This means that a hitter with a high SLG or OBP is likely to have a high correlating wRC+. Further, that hitter is more likely to have a higher wRC+ than a hitter with a high BB% and low ISO.
Slugging percentage and ISO themselves are closely related – they have a correlation of 0.89 between them. The other major factor, OBP, has a strong relationship with AVG (0.73), BABIP (0.68), and BB% (0.55). Over the course of a season, a high BABIP for a hitter is good; but in smaller samples, it can be highly deceptive. It’s subject to fluctuations due to luck and the skill of defenses faced. Further, defenses can adjust and shift to a hitter’s strengths, pulling BABIP downward. ISO is also a stat that can be deceptive in small samples (ie. less than a full season), but when it comes to power hitters, managers can’t move outfielders into the bleachers.
The metrics’ correlation with wRC+ also applies to changes in wRC+. The top five players in increased wRC+ from 2012 to 2013 thus far are: Chris Davis, Justin Upton, Bryce Harper, Carlos Santana, and Miguel Cabrera.
Two of the five players – Justin Upton and Carlos Santana – have actually seen their strikeout rates go up from 2012 to 2013. Each player is also walking slightly more than they did last year; and while the metrics are measured on different scales, their changes in wRC+ are significantly more than their changes in walk percentage: each player has increased their run creation at least 45% relative to the average player, while increasing their walk rate between roughly 2% and 6% more than they did last year. While walks might not be a quick ticket to more run creation, they can be a powerful method of constraint.
Just as a good run game can be used to open up the pass game in football, or a solid mid-range jumper can keep a defense honest in basketball, a hitter must use plate discipline to constrain the pitcher and force him to give the hitter pitches in the strike zone. But teams should consider plate discipline a necessary complementary skill – the ideal hitter is a disciplined slugger, rather than a hitter who rarely uses his power because he’s looking to walk. A power hitter with the discipline to take pitches out of the zone forces a pitcher to gamble inside the zone. When the hitter does make contact, you want someone who can create runs. In contrast, a more disciplined hitter that can’t slug when the pitcher does give him a pitch to hit, is unlikely create many runs. Mark Reynolds won’t break any base-on-balls records anytime soon, but he walks enough to keep his power hitting effective.
This type of intelligent aggressiveness might seem too much to ask, but Mark Reynolds is making only $6 million, and Martin Prado just entered the first year of a 4-year, $40 million contract. Prado has an 11% career strikeout rate and a wRC+ of 67 thus far in 2013 – or, 33% below average. In all fairness, for the full season he’s projected to rise to a wRC+ of 85. So run creators can come at an accommodating price.
In baseball, stats are rarely unrelated; as discussed, while OBP and SLG are good determinants of wRC+, those stats are themselves influenced by ISO, BB% and BABIP. But not every metric is created equal. The team with the highest K% thus far in 2013 is the Astros; the Braves are in 2nd place; and the Marlins are in 20th. Winning doesn’t quite correlate with that. The top four teams in ISO (in order) are: the Indians, Orioles, Rangers, and Rockies – each near the top of their division. The Marlins and Dodgers are the two worst teams thus far by ISO, and they are both in last place in their division. Obviously, making contact is good – especially in situational gameplay, when looking to hit-and-run or complete a key sacrifice fly in the late innings. But over the course of a full season, a high strikeout rate proves to be nothing more than the stigma attached to it, and based on last season and the beginning of this season it hasn’t served as a negative constraint on hitters. Power with some discipline is what creates runs, and that’s where Mark Reynolds excels.