Amid the excitement about a hot month for the Marlins (16-6 record in the month of May) and the hot streak of Giancarlo Stanton (.298/.385/.655, .438 wOBA in May) lies some other strong performances from bounceback candidates in May. One of those candidates is Jose Reyes, who struggled mightily in the month of April, batting just .220/.293/.341 that month. The key, however, was that many of his peripherals, particularly his strikeout and walk rates, were decently in line with expectations. Reyes struck out and walked at about a 10 percent clip that month, and that seemed reasonable given his general ability to avoid strikeouts and his decent plate approach.
In May, Reyes has been much better, hitting .292/.385/.337, good for a .339 wOBA. While some of those numbers remain off in that batting line, in particular his power, his OBP stands out in how high it is for a player who was once known for being more of a traditional leadoff man rather than the OBP-dependent leadoff man of today. Reyes racked up a .385 OBP on the back of one of the oddest months of plate discipline we have seen from him.
In May, Reyes has drawn 14 walks while only striking out five times. This is an amazing feat for a player who previously was known as a free swinger, whether he was or was not. Prior to last season's career year, Reyes's career high in OBP was .358 in 2008. His previous career high in walks was 77 in 2007, and while he might not match that mark this year, he could end up with his second or third highest walk total of his career by season's end; ZiPS projects Reyes will finish the season with 58 walks (based on an 8.4 percent walk rate the rest of the way). Meanwhile, while he is not likely to beat last year's strikeout low in 43, ZiPS projects him to finish with 51 punch-outs, the second lowest total of his career and the second time he would have finished with more walks than strikeouts.
How is Reyes doing all of this? Apparently, he is attempting to employ a formula previously used by one of the finest Marlins of team history, Luis Castillo.Castillo's Plan
Luis Castillo never had power (career ISO of .061), and while he was always a good basestealer, one cannot carge a successful career in the majors with only high contact and stolen bases (unless your name is Juan Pierre, I guess). As a result, Castillo employed a tactic that is used by some of the most patient hitters of today's game: they don't swing the bat.
Well, that is not necessarily true. In his heyday, Castillo swung at 35 percent of pitches he saw. But he was highly selective in those swings; during his best years with the Marlins, Castillo never swung at more 13.5 percent of pitches outside the zone and once swung at just under 10 percent of those pitches in 2004, according to data gathered by Baseball Info Solutions (here, we use Pitch F/X data whenever available). This allowed Castillo to draw tons of walks, and indeed from 2002 to 2005, he drew walks in 10.2 percent of his PA.
But walks were not the only thing he needed to do to be effective at the plate. Because Castillo lacked power, he could not be an above-average contributor without a good batting average to go along with that strong walk rate. A batting line of .270/.340 does not look that good when your SLG is at .330. So Castillo utilized his other skill, the skill he shared with the likes of Juan Pierre: his high contact rate. From 2002 to 2005, he never made contact on fewer than 89.8 percent of pitches swung at, getting up a 94 percent rate in 2005. This meant that he put the ball in play often enough that he could maintain a .300 or so batting average and the subsequent strong OBP without having a sky-high BABIP. Sure enough, thanks to his 9.3 percent strikeout rate from 2002 to 2005, he hit .303 with a .377 OBP with only a speedster-approved .334 BABIP.
Reyes has worked on his impersonation in the month of May. He has swung at 36 percent of his pitches seen, while only 22 percent have been out of the zone. The impersonation is not perfect, of course, as few players could have the eye and patience that Castillo displayed during that time period. Indeed, Emilio Bonifacio was doing something like that, as he had only swung at 17 percent of pitches outside of the zone and 50 percent of those in the zone. But Bonifacio lacks to contact ability of Castillo and Reyes, making his approach to Castillo-hood much more difficult. With Reyes, when pitches are inside the zone, his contact rates can induce balls in play and potential hits for him. This season, Reyes has a 93.9 percent contact rate on pitches in the zone and an 89.2 percent contact rate overall.
You can see a visual interpretation of Reyes's increasing patience over the last three seasons. Take a look at his swing and take heat maps starting in 2010.
Compare that to 2011.
And finally to this season, 2012.
Look past the wonky left-handed pitcher graphs, as apparently Reyes primarily swings up in the zone against lefties and the sample sizes just are not that large year to year. Take a look at how much more refined in 2012 zone against righties has been versus his previous years. There is no guarantee that it will stay that way, and you have to keep in mind that I regressed his zone in order to smooth out the appearance of all the graphs, and regressing Reyes in 2012 made for a much wonkier graph that told you very little. We cannot infer much from this just yet, but it feels like a decent bet that Reyes is improving on his plate discipline from even last season.
Reyes has a lot more work to do. He has not displayed the power he showed in 2011 or in other previous seasons, and that power, particularly in the triples department, is going to be a necessary touch for Reyes to continue performing at a high level and recovering from his awful April. But his luck on balls in play has turned towards the better once again, and he has this sort of plate patience on his side. His approach at the plate is good, and with his contact ability, only good things should follow for him and the Marlins.