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Franmil Reyes and the Javy Baez School of Hard Knocks

For almost a month straight, Franmil Reyes did not take a walk. While that’s not a good thing, I’m not convinced that it’s a bad thing either.

Since April 18th, Franmil Reyes has hit nine home runs, and that is definitely a good thing. Reyes’ carrying tool is his power. Walks don’t provide him a path to exploit that carrying tool, so perhaps they shouldn’t be a major part of his game.

In the three-true outcomes age of baseball, Reyes seems indifferent to walks. However, given his recent success, Reyes looks like he might be better off if that’s the direction he chooses for himself.

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“Not Changing Anything”

Since his last walk on April 18th, Reyes has produced a .356ISO, .299 AVG., and .655 SLG. Given Reyes early struggles, it would be fair to ask what he’s changed in his approach. The most noticeable statistical difference between Reyes before April 23rd, when he started heating up, and after it is simple: he stopped walking and started swinging more often.

BB% Swing% O-Swing% SwSt% wRC+
3/28 - 4/18 11.5% 51.6% 34.3% 12.9% 104
4/19 - 5/15 0.0 61.9% 41.7% 20.2% 144

Reyes has attributed his recent success to just seeing the ball better and “not changing anything,” as he described in one postgame interview. Having read and watched too many postgame interviews, that could be a player being coy, but it feels more like a player confessing that his strategy is to see the ball, hit the ball, and run.

Given Reyes’ recent power surge, that's not necessarily a bad strategy. Reyes wouldn’t be the first prodigiously talented player who felt that tinkering didn’t improve his game. The 6'5" righty seems to have found his rhythm at the plate. Rely on a lifetime of hard work and don’t overcomplicate the game. Looking at his numbers and watching Reyes play reminded me eerily watching Javier Baez play last season.


The Javier Baez School of Hard Knocks

Baez is renowned as a player who swings the bat with a ferocity that would make little-league coaches cringe. So far this season, Baez has averaged a 92.8 MPH exit velocity. Franmil Reyes clocks in at 92.7. Before the start of the season, there was talk around baseball analysts who projected major regression from Baez, and maybe it still comes, but at this point, his performance looks sustainable.

Momentarily ignoring all of the tactical considerations between a hitter and pitcher, Baez strategy is simple: swing at anything that strikes his fancy, then hit the ball hard and often. Reyes’ core approach is eerily reminiscent of Javier Baez’s swing-at-all-the-pitches strategy. Consider Baez's numbers from 2018 in comparison to Reyes' from this year.

Swing Contact Z-Swing O-Swing SwSt% FB/GB ratio Brls/PA% wRC+ wOBA xwOBA
Baez 18 57.8% 68.0% 76.4% 43.8% 17.9% 1.41 8.7 131 .366 .349
Reyes 19 58.1% 70.0% 81.3% 50.0 17.2% .86 12.0 132 .351 .402

We could look at Baez’s numbers for 2019, but they tell a similar story, so I’m using last season because I’m interested in comparing Reyes’ breakout with Baez’s breakout. Both players own “poor” swing, chase, and swinging-strike rates. Yet neither one suffers from it because of how they turn those additional swings into extra-base hits.

In 2018, Baez ranked 21st in the league with 8.7 Barrels per plate appearance (Brls/PA%) and 36th in the league with 12.6 Barrels per batted-ball event (Brls/BBE%). This season, Franmil Reyes ranks 11th in Brls/PA% with 12.0, and he is 21st with 17.1 Brls/BBE%. All four of those ratios are excellent, but the difference between their respective BBE and PA ranks suggests that Baez and Reyes have slightly worse barrels per batted-ball event than we might expect for hitters with their Brls/PA profile.

Baez and Reyes make ideal contact slightly less often than other high-caliber hitters with similar profiles... but make up for it by the sheer volume of strong contact.

That hypothesis is supported if we look at Statcast’s measurement for balls launched at an ideal angle, Sweet Spot Ratio (SwSp%), which it defines as a “launch angle between eight and 32 degrees.” Reyes and Baez both hit the ball hard, but they also generate a moderate number of less-than-ideal results. Reyes owns a 40.0% SwSp% and Baez has a 40.7%. Those ratios are good, but not great. Fortunately, however, Baez and Reyes make up for it by the sheer volume of strong contact. That's particularly true for Reyes, who ranks 130th plate appearances but 12th in barrels.


Disciples of the School of Hard Knocks

Looking more broadly there are a host of players around the league who fit this profile: hitters with high swing rates and ten or more barrels (top-100). They are arranged here by Barrels per plate appearance.

Name O-Swing% Swing% SwStr% wOBA FB/LD Velo Brrls/PA xwOBA Barrels Total
Franmil Reyes 38.4% 58.1% 17.2% 0.353 96.7 11.6% .397 17
Javier Baez 43.6% 54.7% 17.0% 0.406 97.8 9.9% .391 17
J.D. Martinez 34.7% 53.2% 13.3% 0.378 98.0 9.8% .456 19
Avisail Garcia 40.9% 55.5% 20.3% 0.352 95.8 9.8% .376 15
Eddie Rosario 42.8% 55.9% 10.7% 0.337 95.3 9.3% .347 15
Adalberto Mondesi 42.5% 57.4% 18.0% 0.332 93.5 8.4% .316 15
Yasiel Puig 39.9% 57.3% 15.8% 0.282 92.6 8.3% .324 14
Brandon Lowe 35.2% 54.7% 20.8% 0.371 96.1 8.3% .334 12

There are some impressive hitters on the list. As the most selective and strongest hitter, JD Martinez stands out in particular, but Rosario, Puig, and Mondesi are all players you want to own as well.

Avisail Garcia and Brandon Lowe both strike me as fascinating names here. Garcia has a history of impressive performance and notable hot streaks that have been interrupted by inconsistency or injury. Despite the fact that he seems to have been around forever, Garcia is still just 27 years old. Brandon Lowe could put up 2017-Joey-Gallo numbers: a 35% strikeout rate and 40 home runs. Lowe's batting average should be a little higher, but the fundamental production might be comparable.

I’m actually surprised not to see Gallo on this list, but he’s demonstrating such dramatically improved plate discipline that he looks to have graduated, but maybe the walks are just from teams pitching around him.


Prognostications of the End Times

None of this is to say that Baez and Reyes are totally immune to the type of trouble that many experts predicted for Baez. The core concern is that any player who exercises “poor plate discipline” and relies solely on contact to reach base is more susceptible to cold streaks and pitchers who work around the zone. For example, the start of Reyes’ 2019 season. Obviously, it would be better if Reyes was able to produce this type of power while also laying off pitches outside the zone.

At some point pitchers will just stop throwing strikes to Reyes, and they’ll attempt to exploit his willingness to swing outside the zone. There’s no doubt that Reyes will have to make some adjustments, but the reality is that Reyes' plate coverage has been exceptional this season (Image courtesy of Fangraphs):

“Plate discipline” and walks have become so sacrosanct that we’ll likely start seeing calls to sell Reyes in the same way that we did with Baez. The reality is that it’s unlikely owners will be able to get fair trade value out of Reyes. There will be some trade partners willing to pay a fair price, but that number will be limited.

Reyes may defy the prevailing wisdom about success and production in baseball, but his success is not without precedent or pattern. Given the reliance on batted balls, he'll be more prone to BABIP fluctuations. He’s likely to run into a cold stretch this season, as Baez did in May of last year, but keep an eye on his BABIP, velocity, and Sweet-Spot splits, which should give us an indication of whether he is genuinely struggling at the plate or just going through some bad luck.

Like Baez last season, Reyes makes a potential buy-high or hold candidate. I wouldn’t overvalue him, but he’s looking like a top-100 player in batting average leagues. And if Garcia or Lowe emerge as a potential all-star, you’ll have a sense of how to judge them.

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