Before the Pirates set off on their 10 game road trip voyage Thursday, Corey Dickerson stood at his locker, surrounded by media members with a Buzz Lightyear costume pulled up to his hips. His rehab assignment is over, and he will be activated off the Injury List in the immediate future. After being without their Gold Glove winning, plus hitting outfielder for two months, that would sound like a huge boost for an injury depleted Pirates squad. In reality, it might be a lateral move at best. That’s due in large part to the work of Bryan Reynolds.
Barring a trade or another outfielder hitting the IL, it looks like Reynolds is not long for the major league roster. That move might not be for a couple days, or even a week or two. But Gregory Polanco and Corey Dickerson are off the IL, Starling Marte is back on track and Melky Cabrera is providing good depth. It makes no sense to keep Reynolds in the majors just for pinch-hitting and reserve duties. Dickerson won???t be able to go every day immediately, so the Pirates could roll with five outfielders for a bit, but again, that’s a short term solution.
I should state that I don’t have an inside scoop that says Reynolds is for sure drawing the short straw. I’m just reading tea leaves. It’s not fair to Reynolds to have him just sit on the bench and it could stunt his development. Unless the Pirates decide to go with five outfielders for the foreseeable future, the options are A. Make a trade in June, B. DFA a good veteran player, and C. Option a rookie. It seems pretty clear cut on what is the most likely outcome.
It is no fault of his own. Actually, Reynolds has been one of the best outfielders in baseball since his promotion. From his first big league game on Apr. 20, here is where he ranks among National League left fielders in a variety of categories (min. 100 PAs):
1.4 fWAR (1st)
152 wRC+ (2nd)
.346 BA (1st)
.404 OBP (2nd)
0.7 BsR (6th)
And on top of those good hitting and base running numbers, he also has five defensive runs saved– tied for the second most among NL left fielders. There hasn???t been a weak part of his game in the first six and a half weeks of his career. He had big shoes to fill when Dickerson went down. Now Dickerson has to fill the shoes of the best left fielder in baseball over the last month and a half.
Reynolds has the second most WAR on the Pirates since his promotion. Josh Bell is obviously first, but he also has more PAs than Reynolds. Since Apr. 20, they’ve been producing WAR at an almost identical pace per plate appearance. If Bell is the Pirates’ MVP so far, there’s a good case for Reynolds being the runner-up.
To be fair, Reynolds is outperforming almost all of his expected metrics. He is enjoying a .418 BABIP clip at the moment, the fourth highest in baseball among players with at least 100 PAs. That???s obviously going to fall at some point, but it might not be as steep a drop as expected. For one, Reynolds has been one of the best in baseball at getting hard contact.
He???s in the top 20% in baseball in average exit velocity and in the top 10% for how often he gets hard contact. Sure, he may be outperforming his xwOBA and xSLG, but his batted ball profile is still very good, especially for a rookie who only played 13 games in AAA before being called up to the majors.
And he has gotten better with more at-bats. Reynolds may have started his major league career with a franchise record-tying 11 game hitting streak, but he wasn???t always hitting the ball hard. He did drive a couple balls, but he also benefited from some bloops. During that 11 game hit streak, he had a .345 xwOBA. From the day it ended on May 5 to June 5, he had a .365 xwOBA. In layman’s terms, he???s striking the ball better now, and it???s not just because he???s on another extended hitting streak.
Jake Smail wrote last month about how Reynolds??? hand placement looks a lot more comfortable now than when he was in the Giants??? system. He also ditched the leg kick, giving him a more compact swing. For illustration, let???s take a look at the GIF Jake made comparing Reynolds??? Giants and Pirates swings.
To get a side by side comparison for the switch-hitter, assistant hitting coach Jacob Cruz has the goods.
— Jacob Cruz (@JacobCruz09) May 29, 2019
These changes undoubtedly were key in raising his fly ball percentage when he went to Altoona last year (hat tip to David Slusser). While Reynolds hasn???t done as well at putting the ball in the air in the majors (48.5% ground ball rate, 28.2% fly ball rate), he has done a better job at becoming more selective. His rolling swing tendencies tell of a young player who is getting a better feel of the strike zone.
Reynolds has improved has quality of contact and his eye, all while hitting like a madman. His reward is staring down the barrel of a trip to AAA. It works in theory to trade a surplus outfielder on an expiring deal to open up a spot for him, but that’s tough to pull off in June. Not to mention the Pirates will surely want pitching in return, which is in high demand.
If this is goodbye for now, Reynolds will definitely be back. It’s just hard to accept that a team that was starting Colin Moran in left, J.B. Shuck in center and Pablo Reyes in right two months ago now has such a logjam of outfielders that they need to option the most productive of the lot.