Franmil Reyes is having himself the season we all hoped for.
Every time he’s at the plate, there’s the looming threat of incredible damage being inflicted, whether to baseballs, outfield walls, fans’ gloves, or pitchers’ egos. That he’s blasting baseballs is no surprise — you have to expect it when the guy’s like nine feet tall and clocks in at a quarter ton of raw power and joy. But the consistency, the evolution of his work at the plate, it’s the pleasant surprise that baseball fans anywhere wanted and needed. He’s a core piece of the offense, and his presence when he’s there is felt as much as it is missed when he’s not in the lineup.
A key to all this is, for the first time in years, Reyes is utterly annihilating sliders.
There’s a reason that slider use has risen so steadily over the years, from 5.7% of all pitches thrown in 2007 when we started tracking it to an all-time high of 19.7% in 2021. Unlike changeups that demand great feel, or curves with their big looping drop, the slider moves hard, is comparatively easy to throw, and has a snappy break. It’s been the killer of big, swing-happy hitters for decades.
Reyes was no different for the last couple of years. In his rookie year in 2018, he whiffed on sliders 46.9% of the time, a mark that kept rising and peaked last year at 60.2%. On top of that, pitchers only threw them more and more as they saw it worked. He saw a slider about the league average 17.1% of the time in 2018, but last year, when the league was at 19.7%, he was seeing a slider 27.1% of the time. That ranked highest in all of baseball, and the 269 he saw was the second most of any hitter last year.
It was an obvious gap in his game. A blinking light for pitchers that just said: “EXPLOIT ME”. And they did, over and over again as he failed to adjust.
Things don’t happen overnight though, it takes time for hitters to understand their flaw, and more importantly, fix it. If we’re to believe what we’re seeing so far this year, that’s exactly what Reyes has done. Thus far he’s seen 242 sliders in 2021, almost as many as he saw all of last year and more than half the number he saw in 2019, and he’s currently posting a .415 wOBA against them. Compare that to last year (.290) or even 2019 (.349). Essentially, when facing sliders, over the last three years Reyes has gone from Pete Alonso to Gavin Lux to Ronald Acuña Jr. That’s a big whiplash of a swing, but it’s certainly trending in the right direction.
He’s still seeing the slider at nearly the same rate he did last year (26.2%) but he’s not missing it. His whiff rate is just 39.8%, a more than 20 point drop from last year, and more importantly, his average exit velocity on sliders has gone from 90.8 mph to 95.7 mph. This is a tremendous jump and tells us something is happening. What’s weird is, he’s still swinging at them more often this year — 47.2% of the time versus 45.2% last season — but making way more contact. The key to it? Not swinging at them out of the zone as much. He’s chasing pitches 25% of the time in 2021, compared to 29.9% last year and 35.4% of the time in 2019.
Is this just growth and improvement, a better approach to his at-bats? Is this that “seeing what they’re doing to me, and adjusting” that we want all hitters to be able to do? Is it, if we’re being honest, Reyes not facing hyperinflated spin rates as much this season, and being able to recognize more hittable pitches? On that last thing, his wOBA is .396 since returning on July 2 — after the sticky stuff crackdown — compared to .371 before he got hurt in late May. That said, his wOBA against sliders specifically was .440 before he got hurt, compared to “just” .325 since he came back. So who’s to say, one way or the other?
At the end of the day, it looks like Reyes isn’t chasing pitches he can’t hit quite so much anymore. The numbers suggest otherwise, with his outside swing rate actually the second-highest ever at 34.2%, but his contact on those swings is up, too, and far and away the highest rate of his career at 56%. Perhaps a sign that he’s chasing, but not at obviously unhittable pitches. He just knows those telephone poles he has for arms give him some extra plate coverage to do damage.
If — and it’s a big if — this is a trend that shows him being at the least a league-average hitter against sliders, and he can still annihilate fastballs, we have the makings of a truly elite hitter. He’s shown flashes and shown steps toward consistency. His career is barely started, so we have a lot of potential to still look forward to.