The Irrepressible Reyes

Jose Reyes gazed across to the other side of the room. He was seated in a rolling black chair at his corner locker.

“No, I’m not trying to be more aggressive,” he said. “It’s something I had gotten better at before. I don’t know why . . .” He stopped tying his sneaker and stared off for a moment, apparently trying to decide what to say next.

I had just asked Jose Reyes why he wasn’t drawing as many walks as he had in the past. Reyes has walked just 27 times this season after averaging 65 walks per year between 2006 and 2008. Both Carlos Beltran — who didn’t play in the first half — and Jeff Francoeur — who is Jeff Francoeur — have walked more times for the Mets this season. Reyes has the second lowest rate of walks-per-plate-appearances in the National League, and his .325 on-base percentage would be his lowest mark since 2005.

This is particularly troubling trend for a player like Reyes. Fewer times on base means fewer opportunities for him to use his best tool: his legs. According to Bill James Online, Reyes averaged a gain of +45 bases per season from 2006-2008. The same metric has him at under half that mark this season, +22 bases gained so far. His walks and on-base percentage are down, and that in turn has caused a drop in his baserunning totals — the relationship between Reyes’ walks and his overall value has a steep, positive slope.

A few feet away, an army of arms, recording devices, television cameras and notebooks were laying a quiet siege to David Wright’s locker. The Mets had just been defeated by Roy Halladay and the Phillies, 8-4, and Reyes played his first game in two weeks. He went 1-5 with a double and a run scored. But most importantly, he played.

He finally figured out what he wanted to say and turned his head back towards me. “I mean, I don’t want to make excuses, but I didn’t really have a spring training, you know? And I only played, like, 36 games last year . . . and every time I’ve started to feel good, I’ve had to come out.”

His voice sounded a weary mixture of frustration and exasperation. He stared off again, trying to think. Even Jose Reyes didn’t know why the numbers weren’t there, other than some loose suggestion of rust. All he could do was rationalize like the rest of us.

* * *

Jose Reyes has played 117 games this season . . . though saying that is really just another way of stating that he hasn’t played in 29 of the Mets 146 games. Reyes has missed chunks of time between his early thyroid issue and the oblique injury that has kept him on the bench for two extended stretches. The result is that one out of every five times the Mets have taken the field in 2010, Reyes has not been among them.

As a Mets fan, this has been particularly disheartening. On the least inspiring Mets team in years, Jose Reyes remains their most exciting and entertaining player. Fans were subjected to the likes of Gary Matthews Jr., Mike Jacobs, Alex Cora, and Jeff Francoeur earlier in the season; they now continue to watch the team give at-bats to no-future players Luis Hernandez and Mike Hessman as younger players rot on the bench because the manager has developed a sudden appreciation for marginal wins. All the while, ugly events off-the-field force their way into our collective consciousness: The team’s best pitcher was accused of sexual assault and then named in a civil case for the same incident. The team’s best reliever was accused of assaulting his children’s grandfather at the stadium, and then violated the restraining order put on him by sending numerous text messages.

It’s not that the team is particularly awful, as they remain just a game below .500.  It’s not that they’re historically bad; it’s far more that, just like LeBron James and Joaquin Phoenix, they’ve made themselves intensely difficult to root for. I’m not sure I’ve ever disliked a Mets team more than I’ve disliked this one.

But somehow it all seems just a bit more tolerable when Jose Reyes is about. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Mets became slightly — maybe even significantly — easier to watch when he returned Friday night. On a team that has turned out to be less fun than stapling one’s own head to the carpet, Jose Reyes is a blurry dreadlocked reminder that baseball is a game, and games are supposed to be fun. He is a reason to believe on a team that sometimes seems beyond such things.

Still, Reyes has missed 20% of the Mets games. Even when he has played, he simply hasn’t been the same player.

From 2006-2008, Reyes averaged 118 runs scored, 196 hits, 65 walks, 34 doubles, 16 triples, 16 home runs, 66 steals, and played great defense at shortstop. He was the quickest player with the most unbelievable arm. He could hit the ball out of the ballpark from either side of the plate, or speed his way around the bases for a triple. Walking him was like surrendering a double, because he was a guarantee to steal second base. No player could do as many different things as well as Jose Reyes could. Fangraphs’ version of WAR ranked him as the most valuable shortstop in baseball over those three seasons — better than Hanley Ramirez, Jimmy Rollins, and Derek Jeter — and the ninth most valuable player overall. He was, quite simply, one of the best players in the game for three seasons.

But this season has not been of the same stuff. Reyes has 78 runs scored, 143 hits, 27 walks, 26 doubles, 8 triples, 9 home runs, 29 steals, and has seen his defense slip a few notches. He’s not playing awful by any stretch of the term, and in fact, from May 22 until injuring his oblique before the All-Star break, Reyes put up a .936 OPS with 10 steals over 38 games. So he can still do his thing. Fangraphs ranks him as the eighth-most-value shortstop despite missing so many games . . . but he has taken a step back from the Jose Reyes of old. He certainly hasn’t been among the best players in the game this season, and that’s disappointing in its own way.

Still, he’s a bolt of excitement — maybe a slightly lesser version than before, but a flash that’s been sorely missed for a fifth of this miserable season. If there are indeed reasons to watch for the rest of the year, Jose Reyes is as good as any.

* * *

Now it seemed as though Reyes was trying to convince himself he would bounce back just as much as he was trying to convince the nervous stranger who appeared near his locker of the same.

I brought up his walk total because I couldn’t discern why it had dropped, and I figured who would know better . . . only Reyes didn’t know, either. He was aware of it, but didn’t know why. Instead, it was as if he was trying to figure out why by bouncing possible reasons off me. I started to feel a little bit like an under-prepared therapist as he finished tying his other shoe.

He went on. “I mean, my side . . . I feel okay. But my legs feel good, you know? Running feels good.” Now he was starting to perk up, nodding his head with the rhythm of his own speech.

I hadn’t even asked him about his legs; Reyes brought those up on his own. He seemed to suddenly realize, in the middle of speaking, that his legs hadn’t bothered him all season. This fact appeared to elate him. He still had his legs. Things were better, because things could be worse. The frustration vanished from his voice and a slight smile appeared.

“No, I’m not trying to be more aggressive,” he said. At this point, his head was practically bouncing as he widely smiled. “But if you throw me a strike,” he said shrugging his shoulders and grinning, “I’m going to swing at it . . . Yeah.”

Reyes seemed to have convinced himself that he’d work out of it with more time. I think he convinced me as well.

Now I was smiling, too — He’s one contagiously happy dude. I thanked him for taking my questions and he replied with a grin and an “okay, papi.”

For the moment, life was good for both of us.

* * *

There’s a line in Bob Dylan’s (somewhat) recent song “Mississippi” that goes, “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.” Perhaps the most talented Zimmerman (who is not a member of the Washington Nationals) sums up Reyes’ 2010 season best: Jose Reyes has come back, but he hasn’t come back all the way. He’s been good, but he hasn’t been his old great self.

And there’s talk — rumors, gossip occurring in backrooms flooded with cigar smoke, officials discussing baseball through tin cans attached by string, or however these things spread — that Reyes might not be on the Mets much longer. The team may look to trade him this winter, and even if they don’t, next season is the last year on his current deal.

As a Mets fan, this makes me sad. Reyes is older, often injured the last two seasons, and he might well not ever be the same player again. I know this. Maybe letting him go and taking what they can get, selling sooner rather than later, is the most logical decision for the Mets. The team has a lot of holes. Maybe.

I’d hate to see it happen, though. Some players seem to be blessed with magical youths, the glow of the mythical Platonic form of baseball-as-it-should-be. Those players — the Willie Mays and the Griffey Juniors — are special. Those players seem almost as though they should be allowed to stay twenty-five-years-old forever, so that we can always feel like children when they play. Jose Reyes is one of those players; he should have been allowed to remain twenty-five forever.

He couldn’t, of course, because that’s silly and impossible. Jose Reyes grew up and got hurt. But even a twenty-seven-year-old echo of twenty-five-year-old Reyes is a joy to watch.

He hasn’t had the best season in 2010, but he hasn’t been fully healthy, either. In spite of it all, he’s been good enough. I think he’ll bounce back. Reyes thinks he’ll bounce back. After all, he’s irrepressible. I hope he’s twenty-five and playing shortstop for the Mets forever.

But if I can’t have that, I’ll take him turning double-plays with Ruben Tejada for the next few seasons instead. Jose Reyes makes baseball fun; I’d really hate to see him go anytime soon. I’d miss him if he did.

Image from Flickr. CC 3.0

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21 Comments

Filed under Columns, Mets, Words

21 responses to “The Irrepressible Reyes

  1. Beautifully written…I have a tear in my eye as I write this.

    Even if Jose were to ever play for a team other than the Mets I would root like hell for him to thrive and eventually become a champion.

    I think we all feel the same way…I think we just love watching that guy play baseball

  2. Only in this blog would you get a reference to Joaquin Phoenix, Bob Dylan’s real name, and the Platonic Forms.

    Good Show.

  3. I wouldn’t be beyond sad if they traded Reyes. He defines the word ‘intangible’ in a fan sense. Maybe (unlikely) it makes sense from a pure stats/injury standpoint but I don’t think it even makes sense from a financial one.

    like you said, Reyes makes the team more fun to watch. The Mets have a chance to be a good team next year, but there is no guarantee of anything. As Mets fans we’re going to watch regardless, but if they ultimately don’t make it in the end, isn’t the ride more fun with Jose? Won’t we go to more games, buy more tickets?

    Isn’t there value to developing a franchise player? Aren’t we tired of “That was the year _we_ had Nolan Ryan”? I want to talk about the career of Jose Reyes 30 years from now as one of the greatest Mets to play the game (he already is actually) and I don’t want to say “i wish he’d won a championship _with_ us”

    • Patrick Flood

      That’s the problem, right? It might make sense to trade him. I don’t think so, but maybe. But they’d need to be POSITIVE that they were making the right move. They couldn’t mess it up or the fan base would never forgive them.

  4. Nice piece! Man he was so good in the last 4 months of ’06. And so young. He’s still a valuable (and fun) young player. Would really hate to lose him.

  5. Let me be clear, I dont want to see Jose traded. Or Wright for that matter. I dont give a sh*t if they havent won anything yet, because really they arent the reason for it. The year that Omar did build a complete team around them, 2006, they were a breath away from the WS. I want to win with these guys because the are Mets, home ground star players.

    And for all those who scream to trade Jose, who exactly is going to play SS next year. Yea you could trade Jose and get a solid starter in return, but isnt a dynamic lead off man/exceptional SS, whos game fits out home park, just as important if not more important than another starting pitcher?

    You make trades to fill holes, not create new ones.

    • Unless the holes you fill are bigger holes than the one you make I guess.

      Buster Posey and Tim Lincecum?

      Joe Mauer?

      • Well those just aren’t realistic trades. Obviously if we could get Jaime Garcia, Albert Pujols and Dave Duncan from the Cards for Reyes then it’d probably be a good idea. But there’s really no realistic trade scenario involving Reyes where we absolutely get better, even if you trade him for an equal value equal cost player at another position you’re still not left with trying to fill one of the hardest spots on the diamond to fill. And it’s usually much easier to find above average players at other positions than short stop.

  6. Agreed, all. Jose Reyes is exactly the type of player one should love building a team around.

  7. Just out of curiousity I compared the stats of Reyes and Carl Crawford. Since many fans seem to think the Mets should trade Reyes, while many fans (I’m assuming an overlap) also scream for Carl Crawford because “he made for citi field” if you will.

    I didnt really know what I’d find in terms of a comparison, but I took the 162 averages for both over thier careers and the numbers are shocking in that they are nearly identical.

    Reyes/Crawford: Runs 112/101, BA .286/.296, OBP .336/.337, OPS .770/.780, doubles 34/29, HRs 13/13, RBI 66/77, SB 59/54.

    I mean offensively, they are nearly the same player.

    So I dont care if people want to trade Jose, everyone is entitled to thier opinion, but I dont also want to hear how the Mets should throw big $$$ at Crawford at the same time.

    • Patrick Flood

      Nice point with the Reyes/Crawford comparison.

      Just to throw some more on top of it, Crawford has done all his work in the tougher league and in the best division in baseball, making his offensive line perhaps a bit more impressive, but Reyes plays the more important defensive position, shortstop. Crawford is limited to left field because of his arm.

      In fact, Reyes is at 23 WAR (Baseball-Ref) in 7 seasons, and Crawford is 25.7 over 8. Very similar players.

  8. The thing here is that Reyes should keep a lot of his value for a long time. He’s had his share of bumps and bruises, but nothing that seems chronic. He’s built to age well though. Even when his speed declines, he’ll just be going from ridiculous to still pretty good.

    He’s having a bad offensive season for him. But, like Wright, I don’t think he’s lost his batting eye. This may be yet another thing that HoJo has helped screw up. I’m just glad to read that Jose is concerned about the walks. We know the batting eye is there.

    As Gina and others have noted, the Mets cannot fundamentally change their position by dealing him–unless they just absolutely fleece someone. They’re either not gonna get value, or if they do, they won’t be any better off than they started.

    • One other thing… the fact that Jose seemed to have no idea about where the walks have gone is, to my mind, a direct indictment of Howard Johnson.

      The batting coach is not a magician. But, what you hope a guy says in answer to a question about where the walks have gone starts like, “What I’ve been working on with the batting coach is…” The answer might not be any better than a wild guess, but the point is that nobody in the organization seems to think it’s a priority to be in search of an answer to the question.

      Sigh. This season just cannot be over fast enough.

    • Patrick Flood

      Trading Reyes this off-season would be selling low on him. He’s coming off a down year.

      If they were to trade him — and I’m not saying they should — mid-season next year might make the most sense.

  9. My opinion is the day they told Mr. Reyes to stop celebrating was the day this team hit the skids!!!!!!!!!!!!

  10. I’ve been a BIG Mets fan since ’64. Jose is simply one of the most exciting players to ever wear a Mets uniform. Thanks for writing about him…great piece. Let’s go, Mets!!!

  11. I love Jose Reyes. Sign him to a long-term contract. Give him his $11 million for 2011, then give him a little more than we gave Jason Bay for 4 years. Surely he’s worth more to us and the Mets than a 4 year rental Left Fielder.

    Trade away Jose and I will stop caring about baseball just like I did back in the mid ’90s.

  12. Jose is my favorite playor, by far, he is fun to watch and since the mets are so bad, this year when he’s been hurt I haven’t really watched. If they trade reyes it would be hard to watch the mets again. I hope him and wright are mets forefer and the mets are boring without him. Keep him!!

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