Jose Reyes has been one of baseball’s hottest hitters over the past few weeks, but it was a play that he made wihout his bat (or his glove) that shows me how far he has come… Like any other Mets fan, I could see the play unfolding the second the ball left Carlos Beltran’s bat in the fifth inning of last night’s game at Boston.
With Jose Reyes on second and the Mets down 5-2, Beltran smacks a single to left and as Reyes starts running, my mind immediately calculates the situation. I know two things; 1) that given the score and Reyes’ speed, there is absolutely no way that he is stopping at third, and 2) that the ball was hit hard and that Red Sox left fielder Manny Ramirez has a powerful arm. I do the math in my head, and arrive at the inevitable conclusion that Reyes, a player who, in his short career has already been labeled “soft” and “fragile,” is in trouble at home.
The play unfurls exactly as I had feared. Ramirez’s throw beats Reyes by two steps, Sox catcher Jason Varitek blocks the plate, and as Mets fans hold their collective breath, the speedy Mets shortstop plows directly into his shinguard. Immediately I assume the worst, and as Reyes writhes in pain on the ground, I quickly cycle through his brief history as a Mets.
He came to the Mets in 2003 as a 20 year-old highly touted prospect, but had injury problems right from the start. His first two seasons were cut short due to hamstring troubles, and as analysts reported that his entire running style needed to be altered in order to avoid further problems, Mets fans grew increasingly worried about their young star. It didn’t take long before the Ken Griffey Jr. comparisons were drawn, another player whose infinite potential was marred by an incredibly brittle body. Last year, although he struggled at the plate, Reyes had managed to stay healthy for an entire season, but now, following what was undoubtedly the best two weeks of his career, all that was about to change. His unprotected chest and shoulder has just collided head-on with the rigid plastic of a catcher’s shinguard, and at first glance, especially given Reyes’ history, the collision seems to be the end of his career year.
And then an amazing things happens; he comes back out to play the field in the bottom of the fifth. The TV cameras show him smiling as he takes grounders before the inning starts, and as it has so many times in the past, the smile warms the collective hearts of Mets fans all across the country. The feat would have been incredible in itself; a young star shedding his reputation an injury-prone prima donna, but given Reyes’ last few weeks, this was just another giant leap forward in his transition from flashy youngster, to all-around superstar.
When Reyes joined the team in 2003, there were little doubts about his speed, or his fielding, but like any other prospect making the leap from the minors to the big leagues, the question lay in his hitting. In other words, would the shift to major league pitchers be too much for Reyes to handle at the plate? Over his first three seasons his batting was sufficient, but even at the end of last season, that question was still unanswerable. He finished the year with a .273 batting average, but even more suspect was his eye for balls and strikes. He walked a dismal twenty-seven times last season (roughly once every six games), and it was not uncommon to see him chasing pitches that ended up bouncing on the plate or sailing over his head. As a result, his on-base percentage was a mere .300, a far cry from what teams would like to see out of their lead-off spot.
By comparison, Derek Jeter, Reyes’ crosstown rival (as both a shortstop and lead-off hitter), finished last year with seventy-seven walks (fifty more than Reyes) and a .389 on-base percentage. Getting on base, no matter the means, is crucial for any batter, especially one with Reyes’ blistering speed, which can turn a simple walk into a triple on two pitches. Going into last year’s off-season, even with all the big free-agent signings, Reyes’ batting was one of the biggest question marks for the Mets.
However, not even halfway into this 2006 season, Reyes has erased that question mark, along with any other doubts about his performance. Working with Rickey Henderson, the best leadoff batter that the game has ever seen, Reyes has shortened his swing, giving him a lot more control at the plate. Not only is he making better contact, but he is putting more balls in play, which, with his speed, makes him even deadlier. He spent most of the winter with Henderson, working not only on the swing, but other facets of the leadoff spot as well, and the early returns on the changes are phenomenal.
So far this year Jose is batting .302 (with a .360 OBP) and has already drawn twenty-nine walks, two more than he earned all of last season. That alone would have given the Mets reason to celebrate, but patience at the plate has not been his only improvement. He has more power in his bat this year (his eight homeruns are already more than he had all of last season), he is currently on pace to surpass his 2005 totals in every category, and he leads the league in the two stat columns most important in his role with the Mets; runs and stolen bases.
In addition, over the past two weeks, he has been one of the hottest hitters in baseball. Since June 13th, he is riding a thirteen game hitting-streak, and over that time span he has been hitting the ball as if it were on a tee. Since the streak started he has batted .561, scored 19 runs, had 6 RBI, 7 stolen bases, 3 triples, 3 walks, 2 homeruns and only 4 strikeouts. Eleven of those thirteen have been multi-hit games (four of which were four-hit games) and his batting average has risen 56 points (from .246 to its current .302). He is a large part of the reason why the Mets currently hold an eleven game lead in the NL East, and the rest of the league is starting to take notice.
Two weeks ago, Reyes and Mets third baseman David Wright shared the MLB’s Player of the Week honors, and last week, Reyes received the award all to himself. He is the first Met to win the award back-to-back since Jesse Orosco back in 1983, and it has quickly become clear to Mets fans all over New York that the jovial 23 year-old is not done yet. Reyes’ teammates use words such as “amazing” (Steve Trachsel) and “unbelievable” (Carlos Beltran) to describe him, and so far this season Jose has added a few adjectives of his own. `Patient,’ `powerful,’ and `dangerous` are now equally apt to describe this superstar, and who knows, maybe come October we can add `World Series champion’ to the growing list.