Bryan Reynolds Is Shrugging Off His Sophomore Slump

A lot went wrong for Pittsburgh last season. Josh Bell tanked his trade value with a career-worst season. Gregory Polanco showed rather conclusively that he can’t hit. The team finished last in the NL Central for a second year in a row and has spent the last few winters demonstrating a disinterest in climbing out of the cellar anytime soon. There are enough problems with the Pirates that a sudden decline by young outfielder Bryan Reynolds was more or less reduced to a footnote.

Reynolds, a former second-round pick who was acquired from San Francisco in the Andrew McCutchen trade and finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting in 2019, hit an abysmal .189/.257/.357 (72 wRC+) in 55 games last year. That line allowed him to blend in with pretty much everyone else in the lineup not named Ke’Bryan Hayes, but it was still an unwelcome development. While Hayes is clearly the player Pittsburgh wants to build its next good team around, having a second foundational player in the lineup is always going to make things a little easier down the line. Reynolds seemed like that player after his rookie season. Fortunately for the Pirates, he now looks like that player again.

Through 44 games, Reynolds is hitting .298/.389/.472 with four home runs, good for a 139 wRC+ and a team-high 1.4 WAR. He’s been on a particular tear in the month of May, hitting .324/.400/.549 with 10 doubles in just 19 games. Last Thursday, he took Drew Smyly deep with a game-tying homer to center in a game the Pirates would go on to win in extras.

Reynolds’ start to 2021 looks awfully similar to the performance he gave in 2019, when he hit .314/.377/.503 with 16 homers, a 130 wRC+ and 3.1 WAR, and he’s having success for a lot of the same reasons. He hits lots of line drives, picks up extra bases by putting balls in the gaps, and provides modest over-the-fence power. The consistency of his numbers in 2019 and ’21, though, brings up one question: What the heck happened last year?

A few things about Reynolds’ 2020 season jump out right away. His strikeout rate, for one, jumped more than five points. This year, it’s dropped almost all the way back to where it was in 2019. That information would lead you to think we’d see an obvious difference in the approach he had in 2020, but there really isn’t one. In all three years of his career to his point, Reynolds has swung at a virtually identical percentage of pitches, chased at about the same rate, and made about the same amount of contact. In fact, his worst plate discipline numbers (if just barely) have actually come in 2021. Put his pure walk and strikeout numbers next to his swing tendencies, and it’s hard to square the two.

That’s a collection of three lines that might as well be straight, sitting under a group of two lines that very much are not. We also don’t get any explanation looking at the number of strikes pitchers threw to him, or how often his plate appearances started with strikes.

There are ways we can get more into the weeds here, but it would honestly feel a little bit silly. We are, after all, talking about a 2020 season that consisted of 208 plate appearances. A five-point jump in his strikeout rate means he struck out about 10 more times than we would have expected him to last season, which amounts to one additional strikeout every five games or so. There’s plenty of fluky stuff that could cause that jump in a two-month season. It also didn’t help that Reynolds exclusively faced pitchers on Central division teams last year, and those divisions accounted for eight of the top 13 qualified pitchers in strikeout rate in 2020.

It’s more compelling, to me, to examine another weakness of Reynolds’ from last season: BABIP. After hitting .387 on balls in play as a rookie, that number dropped all the way to .231 last year. Again, the 2020 season was weird; in addition to the small sample, it seemed like no one had good luck on balls in play. This year, though, Reynolds’ BABIP is back up to .383. It’s the same kind of trajectory that we saw with his strikeout rate, only this time, there’s actually some evidence he was doing something different.

You’ve seen us talk about Statcast’s batted ball types on this site before. This entire breakdown of them by Pitcher List is extremely helpful, but to borrow from them, flares and burners are line drives and hard-hit ground balls that tend to result in base hits. They’re separate distinctions, but they are grouped together because they get similar results; this year, they’ve resulted in a combined .611 wOBA, and that’s actually below how they normally perform. It’s very good if you can hit a lot of them, and in 2019, the major league leader in flare/burner% was none other than Bryan Reynolds, who hit them 32.4% of the time. In other words, even though his BABIP was far above what we’d ever expect a hitter to sustain, he earned it about as much as he could have.

Then last year, something changed. Reynolds’ flare/burner percentage fell all the way to 21.9%, which ranked him 104th out of 142 qualified hitters. Some of those near-automatic singles he lost were turned into something good: His barrel rate jumped to 10.2%, placing him in the 66th percentile of all hitters. But mostly, they became much worse contact. The rate of pitches he topped or swung under both went up four points, and when combined with the increase of his strikeouts, his xwOBA fell from the 78th percentile to the 34th. Here’s what the difference in his batted balls looked like between his first two seasons:

Reynolds, then, was absolutely a worse hitter in 2020 than he was in 2019. Whether it was a fluke caused by the shortened season or the kinds of pitchers he was facing, he struck out more, and he was a much easier out when he did make contact. That brings me to his contact profile in 2021, which is decidedly mixed.

Reynolds is now hitting almost as few flares and burners as he did last year, but he’s making twice as much solid contact as he did last year. Solid, to reference that Pitcher List link again, is the second-best contact a hitter can make outside of barrels. Like flares and burners, they result in lots of hits, but solids are much better at generating extra bases. Last season, just 3.9% of Reynolds’ batted balls were designated by Statcast as solid contact. This year, that’s more than doubled, with his 8.4% rate ranking 30th out of 154 qualified hitters. We’re still dealing with small samples here; his solid rate improvement amounts to 10 such batted balls this season, instead of about five. But it’s encouraging nonetheless, and helps explain why Reynolds is currently leads the majors in doubles.

Things are hardly any easier for the Pirates this season than they have been over the last few years. They’re in last place again, and the most exciting reason to watch the team this season — Hayes — played just two games before hitting the shelf with a wrist injury. But if there were only a few major league storylines legitimately worth following this season in Pittsburgh, Reynolds’ attempt to re-establish himself as a centerpiece of the lineup was certainly one of them. The success he’s had in doing so is certainly worth celebrating if you’re a Pirates fan.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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go bucs
1 year ago

One note I’d add is that 2020 he was out in front a lot and that’s reflected in career high pull % and career low oppo %. Just given his particular skillset, he’s much better when he’s blasting liners to all fields.