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.