Detroit — If you were so inclined, you could talk yourself out of being impressed by what 24-year-old outfielder Victor Reyes has done since his insertion into the Tigers' everyday lineup at the end of July.
It's a mirthless inclination, but you could do it. The conversation would go like this:
Pro: Entering play Tuesday, Reyes has slashed .331/.344/.455/.799 in 125 plate appearances in 29 games since coming back from Triple-A Toledo on July 30. He’s mostly hit leadoff, scored 12 runs, stolen three bases and notched eight doubles, two triples, a home run and 10 RBIs.
Con: He’s only walked three times and struck out 28 times. He’s got a .419 batting average on balls in play, that’s not sustainable.
Pro: He’s sustained it all year. He was raking at Triple-A Toledo, hitting .304, with a .334 on-base average and .815 OPS with 10 home runs and 58 RBIs. He has not stopped. Since Aug. 5, when he was plugged into left field for the injured Christin Stewart and then center field for JaCoby Jones, he’s produced 14 multi-hit games. In his last 22 games, he’s hitting .362 and slugging .500 with an .871 OPS.
Con: He’s got a low 25.7 percent hard-hit rate and, per Statcast, out of 304 balls he’s put in play at the big-league level, he’s got just eight barrels (balls hit with an exit velocity of 95 mph or better). His OPS-plus is 94, below average. Again, has he been good or lucky?
These are some of the issues the Tigers’ front office will hash out this offseason when they try to place Reyes in the plans for 2020. Without question, though, he’s done more than enough to be in the plans. Whether they believe he is an everyday outfielder or a fourth outfielder will be the debate.
“I feel good, I feel comfortable,” Reyes said Monday through interpreter Carlos Guillen. “I am happy. I feel like I’m taking advantage of the opportunity I’ve been given to play up here. I’m always just trying to play as hard as I can every moment I’m allowed to play up here.”
The Tigers selected the quiet, Venezuelan-born Reyes from the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Rule 5 draft before the 2018 season. And though he’d never played above Double-A ball, he found a way to stay on the roster all year, getting in 100 games.
After a solid season in the Venezuelan Winter League, he came back physically stronger and much more self-assured.
“He’s played really good,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “At the plate, he’s battling. He’s fighting off pitches, whether they are in the strike zone or not. He’s just battles you and gives you a good at-bat. Rey-Rey has come a long way since last year.”
Gardenhire made the most of a tough situation keeping Reyes for the entire season in 2018. But being limited to 212 at-bats at that stage of his career may have stunted his development.
”Last year we didn’t play him enough,” Gardenhire said. “He really had a long road back. But he got plenty of at-bats this year. He found something in his swing at Toledo and hit the ball really well. He’s come up here and done the same thing.”
Reyes is a switch-hitter and he has no apparent weak side (.301 left-handed, .302 right-handed), though he’s hit with more power from the right side. Because he was so often overpowered last season, pitchers continue to try to beat him with fastballs.
He sees fastballs 62.6 percent of the time and he’s hitting .359 against it. He’s also hitting .279 against off-speed pitches. Against breaking balls, he’s hitting .195. But, as Gardenhire said, he makes contact. His swing-and-miss rate is just 22 percent, among the best on the team.
“He still has to learn the strike zone a little better,” Gardenhire said. “He fights off a lot of pitches. To his benefit, it’s worked out for him. We put him in the leadoff spot, which is a lot of pressure for a young guy, and he’s done well. He gets on base.”
The next step for Reyes offensively will be better plate awareness, learning to lay off pitches on the edges of the strike zone instead of fighting them off.
“He does hit the ball the other way a lot, but I think that’s more him fighting pitches off,” Gardenhire said. “He gets a lot of bloops and things like that. He’s just good at fighting up there and getting the bat to the ball just to put it in play. And he does that very well.”
To that point, Reyes has a high 39.5 percent chase rate, but he makes contact on pitches outside the strike zone 68 percent of the time.
“He swings at balls up by his eyes, he swings at balls on the ground — but he fights,” Gardenhire said. “As he goes along, he’ll get better in the zone, knowing which ones not to foul off and fight off. But he’s done a really good job for us.
“We put him in a big situation and he’s handled it just fine.”
Reyes and Tigers utility man Harold Castro play on the same winter ball team in Venezuela — Caracas. Both live in Venezuela in the offseason and are waiting for word on whether they will be able to play this winter.
Major League Baseball, in support of U.S. economic sanctions against the Venezuelan government, has presently issued a ban on big-league players participating in the Venezuelan Winter League, which is essentially run by the government.
“Playing winter ball has helped me and other players improve their skills to be ready for spring training and for the season,” Reyes said. “I want to play, but I have to wait and see what happens.”
Both Reyes and Castro have considered moving their families to the Dominican Republic in the offseason and playing winter ball there. But they would need permission from the Caracas team, which holds their rights.
“I really want to play,” Reyes said. “But I haven’t made up my mind. I have to figure out what’s going to happen in Venezuela.”
If he makes the same physical leap this offseason that he made last year, there won't be anything to debate about him next spring, other than where to place him in the batting order.
Tigers at Royals
First pitch: 8:15 p.m. Wednesday, Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City, Mo.
►RHP Edwin Jackson (3-8, 9.35), Tigers: He’s given up 19 runs (16 earned) in his last 12.1 innings over his last three starts. Hitters are putting balls in play against him with an average exit velocity of 90.6 mph, which is in the bottom five percentile in baseball. Against his three most-used pitches (four-seam, cutter and slider), opponents are hitting .343 with 14 home runs.
►RHP Jakob Junis (8-12, 4.93), Royals: This will be his fourth start against the Tigers this season and he’s won the last two, allowing four runs in 13 innings with 11 strikeouts in those two games. The key against him, as always, is to attack his fastball. Opponents are hitting .336 against his four-seam and sinker (91-92 mph). His slider, on the other hand, is almost unhittable (.158, with a 43.6 percent strikeout rate).