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Colorado Rockies first baseman Mark Reynolds is having a late career change

Mark Reynolds has entered a new chapter in his career

Mark Reynolds had a 2016 season that was as strange as it was fortunate. From 2007 to 2015, Reynolds made a name for himself by being a home run hitting strikeout machine. His 2009 and 2010 seasons capture these extremes. In that first year, he hit 44 home runs, a career high. In the following year, Reynolds’s batting average was .198, a career low. There was some consistency though: He struck out more than 33 percent of the time in each season. By the time the 2013 season came around, everyone was fully aware of his strengths and weaknesses. He rode the balancing act to five consecutive short term contracts, culminating in the minor-league deal he signed with the Rockies a few months ago. He might only have gotten the last one because his seemingly rigid profile transformed.

Reynolds’s fly ball rate plummeted to a career low 32. 5 percent in 2016. That mark was seven percentage points lower than his previous career low, which he posted the year before. Fewer fly balls usually means fewer home runs. It did for Reynolds; he hit just 14. But Reynolds also struck out at a career low rate of 25.4 percent, and he also posted career highs in batting average and on-base percentage, .282 and .356. In fact, the only other time he came close to those marks was in his rookie year in 2007.

In response to a question about what in the world accounted for the strange season without many fly balls, Reynolds said: “I picked the wrong season to do it, playing at Coors.” He’s right. Reynolds’s career fly ball rate, including last season, is 44 percent. If he had matched that in 2016, he’d be in line with Nolan Arenado. That doesn’t necessarily mean he would have as many homers as Arenado (Arenado’s average fly ball distance had seven feet on Reynolds’s average), but he would definitely have had more than 14. It was the wrong year for that particular tendency to decline. But again, that doesn’t mean he had a bad year. It was just different.

When Reynolds said he “picked” the wrong year to stop hitting fly balls, he allowed himself more agency than really existed. It was really, as he suggested, a “weird occurrence.” He can’t pinpoint any change in process that led to the different results. “Some years you feel different than other years,” Reynolds said, “I can’t put my finger on it.” But he did consider that he found a swing early in the season and stuck with it. While Reynolds had a career low fly ball rate in 2016, he also had a career high line drive rate. Reynolds said “early on last year I found a good swing path. I worked on it in the cage. I wasn’t trying to pull my hips and hit homers . . . I found early on that resulted in a lot more hits than anything . . . Even if I wasn’t hitting homers I wasn’t going to change because I was having success.”

This intentional consistency accounts for the strange part of his 2016 season. The fortunate part comes from somewhere else: “I also felt I had to play to stay in the lineup. It wasn’t like in years before where I was a starter and I was in the lineup no matter what I did.” Reynolds felt himself at the periphery of the roster, even though he didn’t have a lot of first base competition. It likely had something to do with the series of short-term contracts, as well as the fact of aging into baseball seniority.

That feeling is even more conspicuous in 2017. “I feel the same way this year,” Reynolds said, “if I want to keep playing when Ian comes back. That old adage that if you hit they’ll find a spot for you. Keep putting consistent at bats together. Making it hard for Bud to take me out of the lineup.” Baseball players, like the rest of us, operate with a some dosage of self-interest in mind. It is one of the things that makes their extremely high-paid labor something like the more mundane jobs most of us do. Imagining otherwise is romanticizing—even exoticizing. While we didn’t talk about it directly, Reynolds is aware that he’s hanging on in a way he’s never had to before.

When Reynolds was young, he had a poster of Nolan Ryan on his wall. He was a pitcher growing up, and he admired Ryan’s ability to throw hard so consistently and for so long. I asked him what he would ask Ryan if he was able to sit down for dinner with him. “How he stayed healthy,” Reynolds responded, “his longevity.” It was not a random thought, as Reynolds brought the hypothetical conversation right back to himself: “I’m no spring chicken anymore.”

Mark Reynolds, at 33 years and 257 days, is currently the oldest player on the Colorado Rockies’ roster. He’s in his eleventh major-league season for his seventh major-league ballclub. He’s accrued the necessary longevity to crack the Hall of Fame ballot once he retires. And Reynolds has even done enough to earn a spot on it. He’ll probably even get a few votes, even if he’s just on the ballot for one round. When that happens, it’ll be for his entire body of work. Reynolds’s strange and fortunate 2016 season will end up a blip in his career arc, subsumed by the defining features of homers, strikeouts, and low batting averages.

But at the moment, the strange year directly fed into the fortunate one that followed, and that makes it most significant for now. It was a different year, but it got results, I offered to Reynolds. And it “got me a minor league deal too, didn’t it?”