Lakeland, Fla. — Here’s a question: Should the Tigers try to convince 25-year-old outfielder Victor Reyes to change his swing to facilitate more fly balls and subsequently more power?
Keep in mind that while increasing launch angle has worked marvelously for many players — J.D. Martinez comes to mind — it has hurt some recent Tigers. Leonys Martin, Dixon Machado, Jake Rogers, Daz Cameron, to name a few.
“Just be a hitter,” manager Ron Gardenhire said after the workout Tuesday. “We just want to have success and whatever they determine is best for that to happen, that’s what you’re going to see. We don’t want robots. But we have a lot of tools that can help these guys — a lot of information and data.
“We want them to pay attention to it and start to understand it. Then we’ll see what works for each guy. You can’t make everybody do it. It’s just not going to happen.”
Reyes is a fascinating case study for this. He’s 25 and as a Rule 5 pick spent the 2018 season essentially as Victor Martinez’s personal pinch-runner. But he came to camp last spring with a lot more muscle and a lot more confidence.
After he hit .304 with 10 home runs in 74 games at Triple-A Toledo, he got his first extended playing time in the big leagues and, lo and behold, hit .304 again in 69 games. He had a 40% hard-hit rate (per FanGraphs). He played all three outfield spots, was a plus-2 (defensive runs saved) defender and threw out seven base runners.
But. With Reyes, there’s always the analytics-driven but.
He didn’t hit for power, only three home runs and a .431 slugging percentage. His batting average on balls he put in play was .384, which is an indicator of good fortune and that the .304 average may not be sustainable. His 4.5 percent walk rate didn’t bode well, either.
With a level, eight-degree launch angle, he hit the ball on the ground 47 percent of the time and in the air 26 percent of the time. And that’s the crux of it. Theoretically, a steeper launch angle would help him get the ball in the air more, and with his strength and bat-to-ball skills, that should result in more home runs.
Or, like it did with Cameron, Rogers and Machado, it could turn him into a low-average, high-strikeout hitter.
It doesn't sound like Reyes is on board with any swing changes. Nor is he going to consciously start swinging for the fences. But that doesn’t mean he’s content with low power numbers.
“It’s not my mindset at all,” he said through interpreter Carlos Guillen. “I know if I work hard, with my body, the power will come. But I will not put that in my mind. I will not have that mindset. If I just keep working on my body and stay within myself, I am sure home runs will come.
“I don’t see myself as a power hitter. If it happens, it happens.”
The Tigers haven’t approached Reyes about changing his swing mechanics, and a couple of veteran hitters think that’s probably for the best.
“What it boils down to is, good hitters are going to naturally have loft,” first baseman C.J. Cron said. “Guys are here for a reason. I understand when you are younger trying to sculpt the swing to fit the formula. But when you get to this level, guys have been hitting their whole life a certain way.
“It’s hard to change.”
Cron, a right-handed hitter with a natural upper-cut swing, has dropped his launch angle the last three years, from 18 degrees in 2017 to 12.7 last year.
“Not everyone is going to grasp the different ideas of the approach,” Cron said. “I think it’s super important that if you know this doesn’t work for you, take a step back and re-evaluate. That’s where I’m at with this launch-angle stuff. It works for some and it doesn’t work for others.
“You just have to be stubborn in your approach and be selfish about sticking with what works for you.”
Jordy Mercer had a level swing most of his career, and even though he didn’t make any significant changes to his hitting style, his launch angle increased by four degrees over the last two years, up to 13 degrees.
“My fly ball rate was the highest of my career last year and I didn’t necessarily work on my swing path,” he said. “I made some changes with my hands that allowed my swing to excel a little bit more. But I never thought about changing my swing path.”
If he were to advise Reyes, that’s what he’d tell him. You don’t have to revamp your swing mechanics to hit the ball in the air.
“If you are barreling balls up, chances are you are going to get balls in the air,” Mercer said. “Use your hands correctly and let the barrel of the bat do the work and you will naturally get the ball up. You hit it on the barrel and back-spin it just a hair — that’s all you need.”
The Tigers signed veteran outfielder Cameron Maybin earlier this week, but Gardenhire made it clear that Reyes was still in the mix to be the starting right fielder.
“Where he’s going to play and how much he’s going to play will depend on how we go forward and what we end up leaving spring with,” Gardenhire said. “But he’s definitely one of our guys. He’s earned that. Now, he needs to come in and perform again.
“He’s a young player and we’ve put a lot on him the last two years. But he’s responded and that’s what you want to see. I think he will respond again.”
Gardenhire isn’t worried about Reyes hitting the ball out of the park. More importantly, he doesn’t believe Reyes is going to press and try to be something he’s not
“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Gardenhire said. “He can hit home runs. You watch him in batting practice, he can hit it out. He was a Rule 5 guy and he’s played his way right back into this — that’s pretty good from where he was. He’s made a lot of strides.
“To ask him to start taking a lot more pitches and those things — you know what, there’s a bible verse, ‘Thou shall not pass.’ That’s Victor’s hitting stance and I can live with that. I’ve seen a lot of good hitters do that.”