The Indians have tenuously worked their way into the playoff conversation, managing to stay near the top of the standings all season long. A few lingering questions about their roster remain, and despite the optimistic outlook for this team, there isn’t exactly a large margin for error. Every player needs to contribute in order to have continued success.
When someone falls into a slump as deep as the one Mark Reynolds has found himself in this season, it’s hard to see past that and remember the time when fans were begging the front office to extend his contract. Since June 1st, he is batting just .158/.273/.201, with only two home runs. The seemingly endless success that he encountered in April and early May feel very far away, and with each strikeout, it becomes harder to find a spot for him in the lineup.
During his hot start to the season, Reynolds commented to reporters that he was prone to streaky hitting, and would likely encounter a rough stretch like this later on in the year. At the time, he couldn’t have known that it would last this long, but he knew that it was coming. The struggles he has faced throughout the last two months leave the Indians with a few options. They can allow Reynolds to play through the prolonged slump, release him from the team, or simply sit him – giving the bulk of his playing time to any of the team’s hot-hitting bench players.
It’s important to remember why Reynolds was signed. Chris Antonetti never thought that he was acquiring a player who could hit for a high average, or one that wouldn’t strike out on an almost-daily basis. He knew about the streaks, and the sub-par third base defense that makes it even harder to secure playing time for him.
Despite all of that, Antonetti still wanted Reynolds for his incredible power potential, and for the first two months of the season, the Indians got even more power than they had expected. Since then, the home runs have all but disappeared. Before Sunday’s game, the last time he even had an extra-base hit was June 28, when he launched a home run off the White Sox’s Jose Quintana in Chicago.
The question becomes whether he will have any value for the team as they head into the final two months of the season, and the answer is simple: of course he will.
Giving up on Reynolds at this point in the season would be a terrible decision for the team. He is beginning to show signs of his old self, although the power has yet to return. Before the All-Star break, he had only three hits and three walks in 37 plate appearances during the month of July. Since then, he’s managed five walks and five hits in 32 appearances. While those are certainly limited samples sizes as well, it is encouraging that his ability to get on base and make contact with the ball seem to be returning.
Throughout his career, he’s posted a .303 BAbip, and that has dropped to .279 this season. Unless there is some underlying cause, such as an injury, it’s unlikely that he will hit as poorly for the rest of the season as he has over the course of the last two months.
In addition to hitting plenty of home runs in April, Reynolds was also making more contact than he had in the past. His strikeout rate dipped to nearly 26 percent, and it seemed as though he was on pace for one of the best seasons of his career. In a May interview with Fangraphs writer David Laurila, Reynolds discussed his efforts to reduce his strikeouts, mentioning that the negative attention he received for his high “K” totals had motivated him to change his approach. Focusing his attention on improving his batting average and decreasing his strikeouts may have affected the swing that was so instrumental to his success as a power-hitter.
Whether it was a coincidence or not, Reynold’s decline also happened to coincide with an increase in games played at third base. In 152 plate appearances at third, he has just a .599 OPS, compared to .688 through 145 chances while manning first, and .811 in 76 appearances as the designated hitter. (Caveat: small sample sizes, again.) It’s possible that after taking over at third following Lonnie Chisenhall’s demotion, he was forced to focus on improving his poor defense, impacting his usefulness at the plate.
Whatever the actual cause of the extended slump may be, Terry Francona is stuck in a difficult position. Balancing the need for production in the lineup against the potential hot streak that may follow Reynolds’s home run drought is a difficult task.
Luckily for the team, Francona is making the right choice by giving Reynolds as much playing time as possible without damaging their chances to win. As a right-handed batter, he is primarily facing left-handed pitchers, whom he has always hit well against in his career. He’s seeing much less time as a third-baseman, and Francona pinch hits for him in late, close situations. The team is doing everything they can to take the pressure off and let Reynolds return to form.
If the Indians can remain patient with him for just a little while longer, it seems likely that they will be reaping some huge rewards in August and September.