2022 has not been kind to Bryan Reynolds. After putting the league on notice with a monster 2021, the switch-hitting Pirates outfielder has managed only a paltry .292 wOBA in the first few weeks of the campaign. The season is still young, but some potential red flags accompany Reynolds’ struggles and could turn into real issues if things don’t click soon.
Bad luck is often a very real part of why a hitter underperforms in the early goings. A glance at expected stats and BABIP is an easy way to tell whether this might be the case. Reynolds’ expected metrics hint at some positive regression, but not nearly to his 2021 output:
Could it be that Reynolds is just a slow starter? His numbers so far this season resemble what he did in the short season in 2020:
Have we cracked it? Well, not really. In April 2021, Reynolds posted a .792 OPS. That was well below his .912 OPS for the season, but it’s tough to call that a “slow start” and it certainly doesn’t explain how poorly he’s performed.
2020 also doesn’t tell us much because the hitter Reynolds was then is very different than the hitter he’s been in 2022:
Part of Reynolds’ transformation in 2021 included becoming selectively aggressive. He was about league-average in terms of how often he chased pitches out of the zone, but when he got something in the zone, he took his hacks as much as almost anyone. He also jumped on the first pitch in 2021 far more than he did in 2020, a trend that has carried over into this season. So far, being aggressive has not worked well for him. The chase rate is back up, and he’s making much less contact with pitches out of the zone, driving up his overall whiff rate.
Opponents Making Adjustments
Pitchers have altered how they approach Reynolds following his breakout. One notable change they’ve made is starting him off with more breaking pitches. And what is he doing with those breakers? More often than not, he’s swinging right through them, and he’s falling behind in the count much more often than last year.
Pitchers have also changed how they handle Reynolds when he’s ahead in the count. Reynolds annihilated fastballs in 2021, so what are pitchers doing when he gets ahead and wants to go on the attack? Throwing him fewer fastballs (about five percent less often to this point). They’re more content than last year to take a chance with a breaker or an offspeed pitch than give Reynolds a get-me-over fastball that makes his eyes light up.
Strengths Becoming Weaknesses?
So far, it’s worked for pitchers to selectively cut back when they throw Reynolds fastballs. But to be honest, it might not matter so much if they were throwing him fastballs at the same clip because he’s not doing nearly as much damage on them. He’s not making as much hard contact, he’s missing them more, and the overall results just aren’t there.
Here is where things start to look more concerning. Reynolds’ poor performance against fastballs tells us his struggles aren’t simply a matter of not getting his pitch as often and the bad outweighing the good. He hasn’t been doing well what he did well last year.
Reynolds has also done less damage when he gets a pitch over the heart of the plate, something else he excelled at during his breakout season:
Reynolds’ swing-take profile tells us that he was one of the best in the game at handling pitches over the heart of the plate last year. His +18 run value on pitches in the “heart” region was 10th-best among qualified hitters; around him on the leaderboard were both contact kings like Tim Anderson and breakout bashers like Tyler O’Neill. So far this year, his run value on pitches in the “heart” is already -3. Like his struggles against fastballs, he’s not doing nearly as well at what he did best in 2021.
All of this is a pretty unsavory combination. The results aren’t there, his expected stats don’t hint at positive regression, his plate discipline is worse, and he appears to be struggling with how pitchers are approaching him differently. Despite all this bad news, there is one promising wrinkle, and it has to do with Reynolds’ launch angle tightness.
Consistency Of Contact
A player’s standard deviation of launch angle, or “sd(LA),” measures launch angle “tightness” and gives us a better idea of the consistency of contact he’s making than average launch angle does. (For example, a player who hits fifty balls at a 0° launch angle and fifty balls at a 50° launch angle would have the same average LA as a player who hits one hundred balls at a 25° launch angle—who was making better contact overall?) The lower the sd(LA), the “tighter” a player’s batted balls are; below 28° is considered very good.
Reynolds excelled in the field of launch angle tightness in 2021, and he’s been even better this year. That’s good! It means he’s still putting consistent swings on the ball and gives us some hope that the skills aren’t completely falling apart. However, his average launch angle is considerably lower than last year. That’s not so good—the swings are consistently lower-quality than before.
Reynolds made the most of his power in 2021 by squaring the ball up well. Despite a middle-of-the-road hard-hit rate and average exit velocity, he achieved a terrific barrel rate and expected stats because he hit a lot of line drives and put the ball in the air. Now, he’s hitting the ball into the ground much more often, sapping his power. Combine this with diminished plate discipline and trouble making contact, and we have a painting of a struggling hitter.
Try Not To Freak Out (Yet)
Reynolds’ steady sd(LA) suggests that better results may be in the cards if he can elevate the ball more. As a general principle, doom-and-gloom thinking should be avoided as much as possible in the early goings, especially with 2022’s shortened spring training and delayed start. There’s a perfectly reasonable chance that Reynolds can lock in his swing and we’ll forget all about this in a few weeks. That said, Reynolds’ swing-and-miss problems, trouble falling behind in counts, and struggles doing damage when he gets his pitch are all things to monitor. May will be a critical month for Reynolds, and we might be hitting the panic button sooner rather than later if Reynolds can’t tighten up his approach and make the necessary counter-adjustments.
Photo by Brandon Sloter/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)