When fans reflect on the Pirates’ 2019 season, it’s only natural that the painful memories surface first.
There were plenty of them – Jameson Taillon’s second Tommy John surgery, Nick Burdi’s tearful collapse on the mound and subsequent surgery, Kyle Crick’s fight-of-the-month … and that doesn’t even include Felipe Vasquez’s crash-and-burn.
But there were a few bright spots as well, and while shortstop Kevin Newman’s surprising season certainly ranks high on the list, an even brighter spot could be seen behind him in the outfield: Bryan Reynolds.
It was about a year ago this time that the Pirates announced that Reynolds would be one of 13 non-roster players invited to attend Major League spring training camp in Bradenton. He was coming off a solid 2018 campaign that saw him hit .320 with seven home runs, 44 RBIs and an .862 OPS in his last 78 games at Double-A Altoona.
Overall on the season, Reynolds finished at .302/.819 in his first year as a member of the Pirates organization, having come over from San Francisco with Crick in the trade for Andrew McCutchen. His performance earned him a trip to the Arizona Fall League, but he took a step back there, hitting just .188 with a .572 OPS in 80 plate appearances.
Still, Reynolds entered the spring ranked No. 9 among Pirates prospects, and after turning 24 in January, fans had hopes the quiet, switch-hitter, who was drafted in the second round out of Vanderbilt in June 2016 by the Giants, would develop into a solid big leaguer in time. He certainly had the pedigree, having put together an OPS of 1.064 during his third and final season with the Commodores and then hitting at least .312 in his first three rungs on the Giants’ minor league ladder.
But I don’t recall anyone predicting that Reynolds would make the jump to the bigs last year, let alone put together one of the better rookie seasons any Pirate had produced in years.
After starting the season in Indianapolis, Reynolds joined the Pirates on April 20, a day after center fielder Starling Marte was injured when he collided with infielder Erik Gonzalez in a game against San Francisco at PNC Park. Marte returned to the active roster on April 30, but Reynolds did enough to impress the boss during that time to keep his roster spot.
Former Pirate manager Clint Hurdle wasn’t exactly effusive in his praise of Reynolds, but he did like what he saw. “He’s been very, very solid,” Hurdle told the Post-Gazette. “He’s a good switch-hitter. He’s got a real speed factor. He is a good defender. It’s seven games, but he’s made a good first impression.”
It was an impression that only got better. In his first 96 games with Pittsburgh, Reynolds batted .338 with 13 homers, 49 RBIs and a .954 OPS, and through the first week of September, Reynolds was still in the hunt for the National League batting crown at .330. But in his last 15 games, Reynolds tailed off sharply, hitting just .190 and slugging .276 with no homers and three RBIs.
Still, he finished his first big-league season with outstanding numbers across the board – a .314 batting average, an .880 OPS, 16 homers and 68 RBIs – and a 3.2 WAR figure according to FanGraphs. Simply put, he exceeded all expectations by a long shot.
Now the question is, what can he do for an encore? What should Pirates fans realistically expect from the soft-spoken, 6-foot-3, 205-pounder for his age 25 season? Or more to the point, what would satisfy Pirates fans? Is he capable of exceeding his initial numbers, or will he come back to earth?
After all, the league now has a full year of video on Reynolds; maybe those final 15 games are an indication that pitchers found a weakness, and they’ll be able to exploit in 2020. Or perhaps he was just a victim of the rookie wall; only once in his career dating back to Vanderbilt had he ever played more than 72 games in a season, and that came in 2017 at Class A San Jose, when he appeared in 121 games.
I’ve been wrong far more than I’ve been right about young players, but there’s something about Reynolds’ approach that makes me think he can match his first-year numbers going forward. He’s quiet at the plate, doesn’t get fooled a lot and – at least to the naked eye – seems to have a similar swing from both sides, unlike another young Pirate standout, Josh Bell.
In fact, as Reynolds adds weight and muscle and gets his own book on opposing pitchers, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him develop into a 25-homer, 100-RBI guy and a defender capable of playing anywhere in the outfield for years to come.
For an old-time comp, I liken him to former Oakland A’s outfielder Joe Rudi, who also spent time with the Angels and Red Sox. Rudi’s best season might have been 1972, at age 25, when he batted .305 with a league-leading 181 hits and finished with an .830 OPS. Reynolds doesn’t necessarily resemble Rudi in terms of batting stance, but he does resemble him in the way he carries himself. Rudi never said two words, delivered many a clutch hit, won three Gold Gloves, played in three All-Star games and helped the A’s win three World Series titles.
If Reynolds can come close to that type of career, Pirates fans should be plenty satisfied.