Commentary

It's all or nothing with Reynolds

Diamondbacks slugger's career off to a Schmidt-like start, despite the strikeouts

Originally Published: August 21, 2009
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

When the Arizona Diamondbacks pulled into New York for a series against the Mets in late July, manager A.J. Hinch gave his hitters a brief tutorial on the hazards of Citi Field.

"It's a big ballpark," Hinch recalls telling them, "so 'turn and burn' doesn't work here. Don't try to hit the ball out of the ballpark, because it just doesn't carry."

[+] EnlargeMark Reynolds
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesMark Reynolds has hit a major league-high 14 home runs since the All-Star break.

It was sound advice -- in theory. When third baseman Mark Reynolds drove Livan Hernandez's second pitch of the second inning an estimated 430 feet over the center-field fence, he made it clear that standard operating procedure doesn't apply across the board.

The home run wasn't as mind-blowing as Reynolds' recent 481-foot blast off Phillies closer Brad Lidge -- unofficially the longest shot in major league baseball this season. But it was nevertheless instructive.

"People like to think that a ton of professional baseball players have the ability to hit the ball out of the park from pole to pole," Hinch says. "They don't. Ryan Howard? Sure. Albert Pujols? Sure. Alex Rodriguez? Sure. Mark Reynolds? Sure. Only the upper echelon of power hitters are truly pole to pole."

If anything is going to take attention away from Reynolds' reputation as a one-man wind turbine, it's home runs by the carload.

By any definition, Arizona's 2009 season has been a lost cause. The Diamondbacks are fourth in the National League West at 54-68. They endured tragedy when reliever Scott Schoeneweis' wife died, and clubhouse upheaval when manager Bob Melvin was fired in May and replaced by Hinch. Staff ace Brandon Webb pitched four innings before going down with a shoulder injury in April, and first baseman-outfielder Conor Jackson appeared in 30 games before contracting a prolonged case of valley fever.

Eric Byrnes, Chad Tracy, Chris Snyder, Stephen Drew and Justin Upton all have spent time on the disabled list. Center fielder Chris Young played his way back to Triple-A Reno, clubhouse favorite Tony Clark was released, and Felipe Lopez was traded to Milwaukee in July. So it's no wonder Reynolds feels like the last man standing.

Some days, it's not a pretty sight. Reynolds struck out four times against Cliff Lee on Wednesday in Philadelphia to raise his season total to 168. But with rookies Rusty Ryal and Trent Oeltjen batting behind Reynolds in the Nos. 5 and 6 spots, the Phillies weren't exactly compelled to challenge him.

"I'd like to think I help us win more than we lose," Reynolds says. "If I go 0-for- 4 with three strikeouts and somebody else gets the game-winning hit, I come in here and I'm happy. If I go 3-for-4 with a homer and we lose, I'm pissed."

Amid Arizona's late-summer salvage operation, Reynolds' ledger features a lot more credits than debits. He ranks second in the majors to Pujols with 38 homers, and he's among the top five in total bases (266), extra-base hits (63) and slugging percentage (.598).

And that's just the tangibles. Reynolds is never averse to diving in the stands for a foul pop or playing through nagging injuries. He performs with an intensity that the Diamondbacks hope will resonate throughout the clubhouse.

"He might be the toughest player on our team, both mentally and physically," Hinch says. "It's not always pretty and it's not always perfect, but it's awfully productive. And I mean that as a compliment."

Reynolds is hitting with more power even though his main objective this season was to become a more well-rounded player. After committing a major league-high 34 errors at third base in 2008, Reynolds reported to the back fields at spring training at 6 a.m. several days a week and worked with former Diamondbacks Matt Williams and Jay Bell on the nuances of infield play. They addressed everything from footwork to arm angles, and some days they would talk for 45 minutes before Reynolds actually fielded his first ground ball.

Reynolds still isn't great. But with 15 errors in 94 games this season, he's at least shown signs of improvement.

Reynolds also worked extensively on baserunning with bench coach Kirk Gibson, and he's reaped the rewards with 21 stolen bases. When Reynolds and Gibson aren't talking trash during their daily cribbage game, they're holed up in the video room, and Gibson is teaching Reynolds the counts, situations and pitchers' physical cues that will make it most advantageous to run.

If Reynolds isn't careful, he could finish the season as the first 50-homer, 30-steal man in history. Check his personal profile at www.baseball-reference.com, and you'll find that his prime historical comparable at age 24 was a guy named Mike Schmidt.

"I don't know if the term is 'country strong,'" says Arizona pitcher Doug Davis, "but his batting practice makes a mockery of everybody else's."

The more natural comparisons for Reynolds are David Wright and Ryan Zimmerman, who grew up with him in Virginia's Hampton Roads region and graduated to big league stardom at third base. But they're both former first-round picks and Baseball America darlings. Reynolds, in contrast, had some skeptics to convince.

After breaking his wrist and putting up disappointing numbers as a junior at Virginia, Reynolds lasted until the 16th round of the draft and signed for a $50,000 bonus. He hit 31 homers in two minor league stops in 2006, but some scouts speculated he might be cut out to be a DH.

Reynolds earned lots of publicity last year for striking out a record 204 times, and he's on pace for 223 this season. But the whiff totals obscure the strides he's making as a hitter. His 60 walks are four short of his total for all of 2008, and his on-base percentage has risen from .320 to .373. He has also raised his batting average from .239 to .283.

According to FanGraphs, Reynolds' 62.1 percent contact rate is the worst in the majors. But only 26.0 percent of his swings are at pitches outside the strike zone. That's a healthy percentage, but a lot more selective than San Francisco's tandem of Bengie Molina and Pablo Sandoval, both of whom take more than 44 percent of their swings at pitches outside the zone.

Reynolds has done a better job of laying off sliders in the dirt this season, while clobbering breaking balls in the zone and hard stuff out over the plate. Recently more teams have begun pounding him on the hands with fastballs, and that's necessitated a new round of adjustments.

"He won't just hit a bomb off you, but he'll shoot you in the hole or hit that 20-hopper between first and second, like Pujols," Davis says. "He's starting to realize that home run pitches are mistakes, and he's capitalizing on mistakes."

The party line from Reynolds and the Diamondbacks: Strikeouts are nothing to celebrate. But 12 of Reynolds' 38 homers have come with two strikes. If he can do so much damage with his current two-strike approach, Hinch thinks it would be counterproductive for him to "choke and poke." At the risk of infuriating traditionalists, Reynolds agrees.

Reynolds I don't understand why the strikeout is such a bad stat. ... But if there's a man on first and one out and you hit a weak ground ball to second base and it's a double play, what good does that do? If I strike out, at least the guy on deck still has a chance.

-- D-backs third baseman Mark Reynolds

"I don't understand why the strikeout is such a bad stat," Reynolds says. "I know when you have a man on third and less than two outs and you punch out, it's not good. But if there's a man on first and one out and you hit a weak ground ball to second base and it's a double play, what good does that do? If I strike out, at least the guy on deck still has a chance."

Reynolds gained some perspective on how to deal with the criticism while playing alongside Adam Dunn, who spent 44 games in Arizona last season.

"Dunn is great," Reynolds says. "He's the poster child for not caring what people say. I don't know if it's a front that he puts on and he kind of cares, but he goes out and does what he does. If you like it, great. If you don't, he doesn't care."

In truth, Reynolds' lack of national acclaim is more a function of playing in Arizona than all those swings and misses. He failed to make the All-Star team despite 24 homers and 62 RBIs in the first half, and finished third behind Shane Victorino and Sandoval in MLB's "Final Man Vote" even though he was the favored candidate of Arizona's senior U.S. Senator, John McCain.

As Reynolds sat on his sofa and watched the Home Run Derby on television, he swapped text messages with teammate Dan Haren, who had a front-row seat at Busch Stadium when Prince Fielder beat Nelson Cruz in the finals.

"Dude, you would have put on a good show here," Haren texted him.

Did the All-Star slight give Reynolds extra motivation to crank it up in the second half? Perhaps. But 16th-round draft picks don't have the luxury of massaging their egos. Reynolds speaks with the candor of a player who's never been fawned over, knows he has flaws to address and is convinced the long-term picture will be bright if he keeps working at it.

One man's stubborn is another's resolute.

"I could care less what people write or say about me," Reynolds says. "My life is pretty good right now."

It certainly is. Reynolds is having a bust-out year at 26. His wife, Kathleen, is expecting their first child, a boy, in November. And during homestands he revels in the company of the family dog, Brodie, a 150-pound bull mastiff who is less formidable than his appearance suggests.

"He's awesome," Reynolds says. "If he hears a noise, he'll bark, then he'll run and hide. He's a big baby, and we treat him like one. I miss him when I'm on the road."

After six more weeks of bleacher-banging, man and dog will have plenty of time to bond. Unlike Brodie's, Mark Reynolds' bite is every bit as impressive as his bark.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer