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2019 Tigers Review: Victor Reyes showed some modest improvements

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Reyes did enough for a return ticket in 2020, but he’s still a long way from being a major league starter.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Detroit Tigers Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The history of the Rule 5 draft reads like a catalog of last chances. For most players, going unprotected in the Rule 5 is a sign that their days as a prospect are over, and that their career as an organizational minor league player has begun. Most years, it’s a longshot that a single player emerges from the draft of unrostered players to have real success.

Tigers outfielder Victor Reyes bucked that characterization a bit in 2019.

The cream of the 2017 Rule 5 draft thus far is starting pitcher Brad Keller. Keller was selected by the Cincinnati Reds and quickly dealt to the Kansas City Royals, where he’s accumulated 4.8 fWAR over the past two seasons. That’s very good value for a Rule 5 pick.

Reyes certainly hasn’t been nearly as valuable as Keller, but he has persevered through difficult circumstances. After his selection, Reyes was promoted to the major leagues straight out of Double-A and stashed on the bench throughout much of the 2018 season. By doing so, the Tigers acquired Reyes’ full rights. But it also put the young outfielder in a tricky position.

Reyes was always a pretty flawed hitter, and not much regarded as a prospect, hence the Arizona Diamondbacks’ willingness to expose him to the Rule 5 draft. He needed development time in the upper minors to reach his full potential. Instead, Reyes spent much of the 2018 season on the bench, and was profoundly overmatched when he did start to get regular playing time.

Things didn’t get any easier in 2019. Yet despite a lack of stability as he bounced back forth between Detroit and Triple-A Toledo, Reyes showed some minor improvements, and posted a solid season overall at both levels. Six different times, the Tigers brought Reyes up to the majors only to return him to Toledo within a week. Finally, on July 30, Reyes matriculated to Detroit for good, and he earned his playing time over the final two months of the season.

What went right in 2019?

Compared to preseason expectations, Reyes unquestionably had a successful 2019 campaign. His offensive numbers aren’t very well supported, but there are some legitimate signs of improvement at the plate. He’s not going to be mistaken for a major league regular at this point, but he proved himself defensively and did enough to warrant another look in 2020.

At the plate, Reyes posted league average offensive value at both the Triple-A and major league levels. He hit for a strong batting average in both leagues, and provided decent home run power to the Toledo Mud Hens, lifting 10 long balls out in just 74 games. While the power numbers were negligible at the major league level, he did manage to hit .304 in 69 games. That batting average allowed him to sustain a .336 on base percentage (OBP) which is 13 points higher than the major league average.

If he could extrapolate that minor league power production to the major league level while managing to get on base at a similar clip, the Tigers may have themselves an average or better center fielder. Of course, there’s still little reason to expect that good an outcome from Reyes, and that’s fine. If he’s ultimately a fourth outfielder who provides quality defensive replacement, that’s still a successful Rule 5 selection.

What’s important here, is that Reyes just turned 25 at the beginning of the month, and saw most of his discipline numbers improve in his second season. He was clearly working hard on being more patient and putting the ball in play, though it may have cost him cuts at a lot of strikes. He cut his swings at pitches outside the zone (O-Swing) substantially, and was swinging less at all pitches overall. He trimmed his swinging strike rate (SwStr) as well. As long as these number continue to trend in a positive direction, and the Tigers can’t or won’t find better options, Reyes is going to continue to get his opportunities.

Victor Reyes Plate Discipline

Season O-Swing % Z-Swing % Swing % O-Contact % Z-Contact % SwStr %
Season O-Swing % Z-Swing % Swing % O-Contact % Z-Contact % SwStr %
2018 47.2 73.9 58.6 76.9 85.7 10.8
2019 39.1 68.2 51.5 74.5 87 9.5
2019 League Avg 31.6 68.5 47 62.7 84.9 11.2

What went wrong?

The fly in the ointment is that most of what went right for Reyes at the plate is undercut by peripheral numbers that suggest that even the modest success he enjoyed in 2019 isn’t sustainable without further improvement. More balls dropped in for him this season, boosting his batting average, but there remains little to suggest that he might repeat or improve on these results in the years to come. And unless he starts to tap into some legitimate home run power, it isn’t going to matter even if he does manage to sustain a strong batting average.

The key indicator here is a .384 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) for Reyes this season. League average was just .298. Varying batted ball profiles between hitters can certainly produce differences in the amount of balls that drop in for them. Hitting the ball hard correlates to better fortune when balls are put in play, for example. The type of contact also plays some role, as line drives go for hits more often than groundballs or flyballs, with fly balls generally being least likely to go for hits, but the most likely to be of the extra base variety when they occur.

Reyes does appear to have elements to his game that may help him sustain a solid batting average. In his favor is the fact that Reyes strikes out a little less than the league average of 23 percent, and he hits a high percentage of line drives. His 28.7 percent line drive rate is one of the highest in the game. That comes on the heels of a 26.1 percent rate at the major league level in 2018. Reyes also played 69 games without an infield fly out. The total lack of those gimme outs contributed to a higher average than some of his other numbers would suggest.

Statcast’s expected stats say Reyes should have posted a batting average of .284, as compared to the .304 mark he actually posted this season. That’s not as much of a falloff as Reyes’ high BABIP might lead one to believe. However, his expected weighted on base percentage (wOBA), which takes all production at the plate into account, was just .303, as compared to the .328 mark he actually accumulated in 2019. The league average this year was .320. Without a major boost in power and/or walks, expect his mark next season to be a lot closer to .300 than to league average.

What’s next?

Reyes has earned himself another opportunity for regular playing time in 2020. The Tigers don’t have enough talent to push marginal options like him aside, and he’s still young enough to hope that he can build a little more on his 2019 improvements. However, he still profiles like a part-time player unless there is a major step forward in the power department. Even a fourth outfielder has to pack some home run power in the current run scoring environment, and Reyes has to tap into that power without reversing his modest gains in strikeouts and walks. That’s a tall order.

Where things get interesting in the competition for playing time, is in the fact that Reyes played much better defense this season than JaCoby Jones. Neither player is productive enough offensively to lay solid claim to a full-time gig, but Jones’ power and speed on the bases will continue to give him the edge. However, if Jones’ defensive decline this season is part of a trend, he’s going to really have to hit to avoid sharing time, or being ultimately usurped by Victor Reyes next year.

Look toward 2020 with modest expectations from Reyes, and you probably won’t be disappointed. Hope for a legitimate starter and a building block toward the future, and you’re setting yourself, and Reyes, up for failure.