Written by: Mac Squibb (@SquibberStats)
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Almost no one knew the name Franmil Reyes prior to last season. I’d even be willing to bet that most Padres fans had no clue who he was. And why would they? Not only did Reyes not appear on any top prospect lists, but he was actually subjected to the Rule 5 draft at the end of the 2017 season. If not for a fantasy league that rosters 800 players and a couple of YouTube videos, I likely wouldn’t have known about him either. But goodness, did the hulking Reyes make an impression on me. Initially, I was intrigued by Reyes thanks to the 25 home runs he hit in Double-A, but once I saw this video, my mind was made up. I had to have him on my fantasy baseball team.
Did you see that power? More importantly, did you see that dance down the third base line? I understand that objectivity is something we should strive for in fantasy baseball, but every now and then we’re drawn to a player beyond reason and Reyes is that player for me. With the 798th pick of my league’s draft, selecting Reyes meant acquiring a pipe-dream and someone who was fun to root for. However, as the 2018 season progressed, he quickly became a player who had obvious potential. In early May, Reyes went on a historic tear in Triple-A, hitting eight home runs over a five game span including three straight multi-homer games.
As you’d expect, I was going nuts. A week later, Reyes received his first big league call-up and my excitement peaked.
Then it all came crashing down. Reyes was able to show his prodigious power at baseball’s top level, but he developed a major strikeout problem that hadn’t been an issue before. Over the course of his minor league career, Reyes had never posted a season-long strikeout rate above 24%. Unfortunately, the outfielder posted a 37.8 K% during his first two stints in the majors: May 14th thru June 21st and July 10th thru July 29th. Reyes attributed his increased strikeout rate to “trying to show the people, trying to show the fans, the power I have. I tried too much.”
Needless to say, it wasn’t the start he was hoping for, however, instead of sulking about being demoted twice in the same season, Reyes went to work. Manager Andy Green challenged Reyes to cut down his leg kick and shorten his swing, and the 23-year-old did exactly that. The outfielder was recalled again on August 4th for the third and final time, and he was a different animal from that point forward.
Improvements don’t get any more dramatic than that. Reyes managed to improve in every major statistical category and, most importantly, was able to lower his strikeout rate closer to his minor league average. Some of his strikeout improvements can be credited to an adjustment he made to his two strike approach. Reyes adopted a slightly crouched stance and eliminated his leg kick, which likely helped decrease his strikeout rate. Check out the differences in his normal stance (left) and his two-strike stance (right).
Reyes’s willingness to make adjustments is part of the reason I’m so high on him going forward. In his final stint in the big leagues last season, Reyes had hit streaks of 10 games and 12 games, which was the longest for any Padres player in 2018. He was subsequently nominated as the Padres’ candidate for the Hank Aaron Award, which is given to the best overall hitter in each league every season. Simply put, his adjustments paid off.
We get a glimpse of the most encouraging part of Reyes’s 2018 performance when looking at his Statcast profile. Franmil is a mountain of a man, standing at 6’5, 275 pounds, and uses every bit of it to obliterate baseballs as often as possible.
That’s a 477 foot home run, the seventh longest in the big leagues last season.
Among batters with at least 150 batted balls, Reyes finished 14th in exit velocity, 21st in exit velocity on fly balls and line drives, and 40th in barrel percentage, all while being a 22-year-old rookie. That’s truly elite contact.
However, what makes Reyes unique is where he hits the ball. Other batters with elite exit velocities typically hit the ball in the air with a high frequency to maximize their talent. This approach makes sense, as fly balls and line drives typically yield better production than ground balls, especially when hit hard. Reyes’s approach differs as he hits the ball with a lower average launch angle than most prodigious sluggers, which should allow him to hit for power and average, which is becoming increasingly rare in today’s game. Amongst all batters who finished within the top-50 in exit velocity, exit velocity on fly balls and line drives, and barrel percentage, only 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich had a lower average launch angle than Reyes’s 6.7°.
Yelich has long been known for his ability to hit for average and has recently developed his power stroke, which bodes well for Reyes’ future considering how similar their profiles are. Baseball Savants’ xBA, which estimates the probability of a batted ball being a hit based on exit velocity, launch angle and sprint speed, supports the notion that Reyes can also hit for average. During his last stint in the majors, he had an xBA of .286, which is a stark difference to the .203 xBA he posted earlier in the season.
One of the factors that separates Yelich’s elite profile from Reyes’ is their respective plate disciplines. Yelich has had a BB% above league average and a K% below league average in every season since his rookie campaign in 2013. I mentioned Reyes’ improvements in BB% and K% earlier, but it’s worth looking at a few graphs to help visualize just how significant the late season changes were.
The Depth Charts projection system at Fangraphs currently has Reyes pegged for a BB% of 8.8%, K% of 25.6% and batting average of .252. The system is likely taking into account Reyes’s entire 2018 big league sample, which discounts his late season changes. If he’s able to maintain the adjustments, he could reasonably outperform all three of those projections.
It’s important to note there is a concern with Reyes in 2019 centered around potential playing time issues. The Padres currently have a crowded outfield with Franchy Cordero, Travis Jankowski, Manny Margot, Wil Myers, Hunter Renfroe and Reyes all vying for playing time. At this point, a trade seems inevitable; even without one, Depth Charts projects Reyes to get the lion’s share of plate appearances in right field. Fortunately, health shouldn’t contribute to his playing time situation whatsoever. While playing in the Dominican Winter League this offseason Reyes injured his right knee and had surgery in late November to repair a torn meniscus. He has since been cleared for full activity in spring training and manager Andy Green doesn’t foresee him being restricted at all.
While Reyes only shares some qualities with Yelich, he is certainly capable of forging his own path to becoming an elite hitter. The 23-year-old has improving plate discipline, the innate ability to hit balls at elite exit velocities and the willingness to learn and adjust, which will only fast-track his progression in the big leagues. The Padres have a truly unique player in Franmil Reyes, and we should all look forward to seeing what he can do in 2019 and beyond.
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