Tuesday, August 11, 2009

'Hoos on Third

So I went to the University of Virginia for some degree or other some unspecified number of years ago*, and I loved the school, and the "city" of Charlottesville, more than just about any other non-living thing ever, and so I have a soft spot for baseball players who were Wahoos. And for everyone else who was, too: Tina Fey, Tiki and Ronde Barber, Tina Fey, Katie Couric, Tina Fey, Edgar Allan Poe, Tina Fey...and so on.

*Pozterisk! I act like I'm all anonymous and everything, and yet I get the sense that I've probably put enough personal information in these posts to allow a motivated individual to locate my social security number, annual income, favorite N*Sync member, and home address with just a few simple Googlings. Well, I'll save you the trouble: it's JC, by far.

On the baseball side -- alone, perhaps, among all worthwhile pursuits -- UVA has a fairly short and undistinguished history. Though I suppose most colleges outside of California would have to say the same. There's somewhat questionable Hall of Famer Eppa Rixey, and there was one of my all-time favorite no-names, former Yankee first rounder Brian "Buck" Buchanan (who, at least as a Twin, swung at almost literally every pitch as though it had just spat on his mother in front of him), but that was just about it, until recently.

Now, of course, there's the golden boy, 4th overall 2005 draftee by his sort-of-hometown Nationals, Ryan Zimmerman. For several years now, he's looked for all the world like the next Natural, and we've been waiting for him to break out and be a star, and you had to figure he's already the best position player ever to come out of UVA. And, well, his playing for the Nats has meant that nobody's really noticed since that 30-game hit streak ended, but the breakout is on and in full force. At .306/.372/.537, he's currently putting up career highs in batting average, OBP, SLG and (predictably) OPS and OPS+, and has already tied his career high in homers (24) with a third of the season to play. His always-stellar defense, at least according to UZR, has taken another step up. Thanks in large part to that D, WAR has him as the most valuable mortal in the Major Leagues (second overall to Pujols, of course). As I type this, he's working on another hitting streak -- 13 games, so far -- and has been on fire during the Nats' recent winning streak.

And yet, one could, if one wanted to risk the wrath of the WAR gods, make a pretty strong case that not only is he not the most valuable non-Albert in the NL; not only is he not even looking like the best UVA position player ever right now; but he's not even the best UVA position player currently playing his own position in his own league. That honor, or so the argument would go, is Mark Reynolds'.

Yep, Mark Reynolds, a college teammate of Zim's (Reynolds seems to have played short, at least when the two played together, which fell outside my time there), drafted one year earlier and fifteen rounds later by the D-Backs (he was actually the third Cav selected in that draft). He isn't the fielder Zimmerman is, though he won't hurt you either: his UZR/150 is -0.9 to Zimmerman's staggering +19.2, but his bat has made up for a good chunk of that. Thanks in large part to an otherwordly-hot start to this month (he'd hit .424/.500/1.091 with 7 HR in 8 games through Sunday), he's moved into a tie for the Major League home run lead.
The guy known only (if at all) as the current all-time single-season strikeout leader, a guy who hit just .239 in 2008, with moderate patience and a ho-hum 28 homers (in a home run hitter's ballpark) to go with those 204 Ks, now sits at .290/.377/.613 for 2009 and is on pace for 52 homers, about 110 runs and 115 RBI, and nearly 30 stolen bases at a respectable success rate. If Pujols' Cardinals were the bad team and the Diamondbacks the good one, Reynolds would be a favorite to wrest the MVP award (however undeservedly) from the hands of the demigod himself. He's probably a good bet to finish second or third as it is.

One thing, though: Reynolds' strikeout rate hasn't changed at all. Well, that's not true; it's all the way down to 36.7% from his 2008 high of 37.8%. But he's on pace to accumulate many more plate appearances and thus to shatter his own record, with 218 strikeouts. Put another way (appropos of nothing, but interesting), he's already struck out 107 more times in 2009 than Pujols has, 151 to 44. Used to be 107 was a high number for one guy to put up in a season. Ha!

And not much else underlying those numbers has changed, either. He's swinging at about the same number of pitches both in and out of the zone, and is making contact only slightly more often. He's hitting ground balls at the same rate (35.8%), fewer line drives (17.7%, down from 19.1), and more fly balls (46.5%, up from 45.2). But hitting a fly ball 1.3% more of the time doesn't turn 28 home runs into 52.

The difference, then? Well, there are two. First, there's that pesky BABIP thing again. Guys who strike out almost 40% of the time do not also hit .290 -- not without a ton of luck. Here's another awesome B-R/P-I list: highest batting average by a player with at least 170 strikeouts in a season. Four guys have topped .290: Ryan Howard in 2006 (181 K, 58 HR, .363 BABIP); Sammy Sosa in 1998 (171 K, 66 HR, .325 BABIP); Bobby Bonds in 1970 (189 K, 28 HR, .388 BABIP), and Jim Thome in 2001 (185 K, 49 HR, .356 BABIP). All except Sosa had a BABIP at least 30 points higher than their career BABIP. And Sosa struck out 40 fewer times (nowhere close to 40%) and hit 14 more homers than Reynolds is on pace to. The highest batting average by a player to strike out 200 times, of course, is .239, since Reynolds himself is the only one who has done it. It takes a lot of luck, and to the extent that you don't have that, it takes a ton of home runs.

Reynolds' BABIP right now? .371. He's young enough that that significantly impacts his career number (currently .358), but in his one other full season, 2008, his BABIP was .329, right about what you'd expect from a power hitter who hits it hard.

Second, while he's hit fly balls at almost the same rate as last year, a ridiculous 29.8% of them have left the park. How crazy is that--put the ball in the air, and there's a nearly one-in-three chance that it goes out? This after HR/FB rates of just 16.2% in 2007 and 18.2% in 2008.

Sure, he could've just gotten stronger, be hitting balls farther, and 29.8% isn't unthinkable, but it's out there. Think of the strongest guys you can since 2002. Dunn? 22.6% career, with a high of 24.2. Pujols? 20.3/22.5. Teixeira? 19.1/22.4. Prince? 19.6/23.9. To get close to 29.8%, you have to go to the very strongest meatheads in the game (and I use that term fondly): Jim Thome (28.0/35.4 since 2002), Ryan Howard (31.8/34.9). So, yeah, it's doable, maybe it's legit. But do we really think Reynolds -- a college shortstop, remember, listed at 6'2", 220 -- is the new Ryan Howard (6'5" and a dubious 256)?

I think he's probably not. And sure enough, a quick glance at HitTracker Online shows Reynolds leading the NL with 12 "Just Enough" homers -- HR that would've been long outs with a slightly stiffer breeze or one fewer bite of Wheaties that morning. Now, you usually have to hit with a ton of power just to be on that list at all, and Reynolds also owns the single longest homer in the bigs this year. So this is a strong, strong guy. I just don't think he's 50 homers strong. I'm going to throw out wild guesses because they'd be fun to check on later: from August 10 (since the data I'm using is through August 9) through the end of the season, Reynolds will hit .250 with 9 HR (giving him 45).

So he's a year older, he's been a lot luckier, and in the long run I don't think there's any way on earth that Mark Reynolds is anywhere near the player that Ryan Zimmerman is, but it's clear that, strikeouts and all, he's turned himself into a hell of a player anyway, and I'll sure be rooting for him. And at least right now, in a sport in which most kids get drafted at 18 or pulled out of Central America at 16, the two best third basemen in the National League, and maybe in all of baseball, attended one of the two or three best public institutions in the country. That's... something.


  1. Hello, fellow Alumni!

    I've always been into baseball, but my boyfriend has been intro'ing me to the importance of stats and in recent weeks I've found your blog to be a good accompaniment to his interest. Was excited to see that you also went to UVA (we both did).

    I thought the Cavs did pretty well this past season and I'm looking forward to seeing them again this spring. Would have loved to see Zimmerman and Reynolds playing together.

  2. Hey, a new reader/commenter! I love those almost as much as I love UVA and Tina Fey. Hope you stick around and leave a comment now and then.

    From your own blog (very interesting, by the way; I tried to blog about serious-type things once, but didn't have the stomach to keep it up), looks like you might be a lawyer too (or just legally inclined)? Just curious.

    Very jealous of anyone who lives in CVille. Wahoowa!

  3. Just legally inclined. I did a year of law school, but I didn't like it so I left. I might return someday, but now I worked in web & print publishing. I still find thinking about the law very interesting. (And my dad is a lawyer and into baseball as well...I've pointed him to your blog, but he isn't as interested in blogs as I am, so I'm not sure if he's reading.)

  4. Ah. Well, that explains it. You learn almost all the meaningful stuff in the first year anyway. :)

  5. If only UVA would have given me some money, ...