Pittsburgh Pirates star center fielder Bryan Reynolds is in the midst of a slump to begin the 2022 regular season. What exactly are his struggles?
This season Bryan Reynolds has started off in a slump for the Pittsburgh Pirates. His stats are reminiscent of his struggle filled 2020 season, where he held just a 72 wRC+ across 55 games to go alongside a .189 batting average. So far this season he’s had a 90 wRC+ alongside a .203 batting average through 20 games.
One of the biggest reasons for Reynolds’ struggles is his ineffectiveness against the fastball. According to Baseball Savant, this season Reynolds has a .276 wOBA and 28.8% whiff rate while striking out nearly 30% of the time. Meanwhile last season Reynolds had a .437 wOBA with a 16.0% whiff rate and 14.8% strikeout rate, a significant difference.
There are multiple factors that can go into his current struggle against the fastball and we will dig into them one by one. First off, there’s just bad luck. This season Reynolds has a .244 batting average on balls in play (BAbip), which is almost 100-points lower than his career average.
After 2020 I wrote about the Pirate offensive struggles, which mainly surrounded bad luck on balls in play, and Reynolds was one of those players who struggled to find grass despite consistently hitting the ball hard. While his exit velocity is down 3MPH, Reynolds’ hard-hit rate is only 2% lower than his career average. His xwOBA of .309 is also a lot higher than his actual wOBA of .267.
Okay, Reynolds is dealing with some bad luck, but that still doesn’t explain how his xwOBA has taken a dip to .309 from .385 last season. He’s also striking out a lot more, which of course doesn’t get factored into BAbip. This brings us to our second factor for his struggles: how pitchers are pitching against him.
Going back to the fastball, below are two heatmaps based on the percentage of fastballs thrown for 2022 and 2021. Since Reynolds is a switch-hitter, we are going to focus on him as a left-hander for better visualization.
The most obvious change is that pitchers are working away from Reynolds as a left-hander with their fastballs. More pitches are moving away from his body, and with Reynolds being a pull-side hitter that’ll make it a lot more difficult to get the barrel around. He’s also seen a lot more pitches further inside on his hands than he saw last year.
Pitchers are doing a better job of staying away from the middle part of the zone against Reynolds while he bats left-handed, and for good reason too. Here’s a look at the same heat maps, using SLG% instead:
Pitchers are focusing on Reynold’s worst spots in the zone, and it’s working. Last year Reynolds didn’t do well against pitches in against him or out and away as a left-handed hitter. This year, while he has hit well against inside fastballs, he has had no answer when he sees them away in the zone and outside.
This is highlighted by Reynolds’ career-low 31.9% pull rate, 9-points lower than his career average. As a lefty he has pulled the ball just 25%(!) of the time, significantly lower than his career pull rate of 40.1% from that side of the plate. While going with the fastball and taking it the other way is a solution (though not as easy as it sounds) it also means not taking advantage of pull-side power, which is a problem.
Finally, there are a few other things that are most likely playing a role in Reynolds’ slow start. He’s seen an increase in first-pitch strikes, up to 68.8% from 56.8% last year. In 0-1 counts, Reynolds has a career 80 wRC+ vs a 157 wRC+ when the count is 1-0. He’s also been topping the ball a lot more, evidenced by a 10-point jump in his groundball rate and an 8-point decrease in his line-drive rate.
Reynolds is not immune to batting slumps. His contact rates are down, barrel rates are down, his strikeout rate and whiff rates are up, and he has generally not looked like the Reynolds we know and love. However, we still haven’t made it out of April, though, and so there’s a ton of baseball left to be played.
Most importantly, Reynolds has shown us that he is capable of shaking off slumps and inconsistencies. He did so in 2021 after a forgettable 2020 season, and he’ll do so again in 2022. Whether it comes sooner or later is hard to say, but Reynolds is only a few adjustments away from breaking out once more.