Reyes turning the triple into an art form
Mets shortstop running wild toward historic year of three-base hits
NEW YORK -- It takes 11 seconds.
The game's leading hitter, Jose Reyes, crushes a baseball. One. He watches it fly. Two, three. Down goes his head as he rounds first base. Four. By this point, he is moving, really moving, still accelerating. Five. Now he's flying. Six, seven. He's rounding second base now, heading for third. Eight. In comes the throw. Nine. In comes Reyes, headfirst to the bag. Ten. Bang, bang. Safe. Eleven.
Then Reyes pops up from third base, claps his batting gloves together and raises his right arm over his head. Some of the three dozen Mets players and coaches in his dugout -- many of them tenants of the top step before the ball even lands -- salute him in kind.
It is a triple. It is a high-speed car chase. It is one of the most exciting plays in baseball, courtesy one of its most exciting players.
It is getting ridiculous.
"He's hit so many triples," teammate Willie Harris said, "to the point where it's raising questions."
Twelve times this season, Reyes has tripled. Twelve times he has performed his headline act, buzzing around the bases in approximately 11 seconds. In what could ultimately become his final half-season with the Mets, Reyes is submitting one of the most remarkable half-seasons in franchise history, transcending the usual level of superstar and entering that rare echelon above.
Leading the National League in hits (103), batting average (.341) and multi-hit games (35, more than any shortstop at this point of the season since 1920), Reyes has drawn the most attention for his triples -- and for good reason. He is on pace for 27 of them, which would rank seventh in Major League history and place him among the league's foremost triples hitters since the end of the dead-ball era.
Since 1925, no Major Leaguer has hit more than 23 triples in a season. Since 1950, only three -- Curtis Granderson hit 23 for the Tigers in 2007, Lance Johnson collected 21 for the Mets in 1996 and Willie Wilson legged out 21 for the Royals in 1985 -- have collected more than 20.
Reyes is threatening those standards in part due to transcendental skills, in part due to his home ballpark and in part due to chance.
"The funny thing about triples is they just kind of happen," said Granderson, who hit 23 of them in 2007 but no more than 13 in any other season. "There's nothing you can do mechanically to go ahead and hit a triple."
|"A triple's exciting, man. People love it. And I love it, too."|
|-- Jose Reyes|
Instead, Reyes makes his own luck, as the adage goes. Consider his most recent triple. Shooting a low fly ball to shallow center field in Atlanta on Thursday, Reyes watched the ball glance off center fielder Jordan Schafer's glove and fall to the grass. Though the ball came to rest mere feet from the spot of Schafer's dive, Reyes never slowed, accelerating past second base and on to third. Unable to slap Schafer with an error, Turner Field's official scorer ruled it a triple.
Mostly, though, Reyes' three-base hits have emerged from a different -- and rather consistent -- mold. Batting left-handed, Reyes shoots a ball into Citi Field's right-center field gap, between two outfielders. He begins thinking triple when he rounds first base, usually arriving at third base several seconds later without much issue.
"With the kind of speed that I have, I know that I'm going to make it there easy," Reyes said, "no matter how hard I hit the ball."
Throughout his career, Reyes can recall only one attempted triple that went awry, when Alfonso Soriano, then with the Nationals, gunned him down in 2006. At the time, it appeared as though Reyes would develop into a perennial 20-triple threat, using both his speed and Shea Stadium's spacious outfield gaps to his advantage.
However, after he tripled 19 times in 2008, injuries began to hamper him, preventing him from exploiting the even more generous dimensions of his new home park. Reyes found himself unable to take advantage of Citi Field in the same way that Granderson abused Comerica Park back in 2007.
From every last brick to every last blade of grass, Citi Field has always been uniquely suited to Reyes. Its outfield gaps rank among the largest in baseball, extending from the 408-foot mark in dead center field to 415 feet in right-center. Just as the park has frustrated right-handed power hitters such as David Wright and Jason Bay, taunting them with its oversized dimensions, it has beckoned Reyes with its promise of triples.
In many ways, Citi Field is anomalous, given its high walls and quirky outfield dimensions. And that has certainly played a role in the frequency of Reyes' triples, not only allowing a greater percentage of them to fall safely on the outfield grass, but also ensuring that only a few of his line drives will clear the fence for homers.
Indeed, Reyes is hitting home runs less than one percent of the time, the lowest rate of his nine-year career. His rate of home-runs-per-fly-balls is below three percent for the first time since 2004, when he owned a skinnier body and lacked his current pop.
Most of the shortstop's other offensive ratios currently fall in line with his career norms, save one: he is striking out significantly less often than ever before. That has allowed him to put more balls in play, which in turn has translated into more triples.
As in most areas of the game, some of that is due to luck and will level out over time. Some is due to Reyes' otherworldly run at the plate. And some is due to Citi Field, which harkens back to older stadiums with more spacious -- and, in some cases seemingly limitless -- dimensions.
Though there is no sure way to measure a ballpark's ability to produce triples, ESPN offers an attempt with its "Park Factor" index, which quantifies stadium tendencies by comparing a team's power-hitting statistics at home and on the road. Citi Field ranks sixth in its triples factor this season, no doubt in large part due to Reyes. It was also sixth last season and seventh in 2009, consistently ranking behind Coors Field in Colorado (which, contrary to popular perception, boasts larger dimensions than those of Citi).
In Granderson's view, ballparks do play a significant role. Whereas Comerica's deep gaps and ample foul ground once gave Granderson time to run the bases, Yankee Stadium has afforded him no such luxuries. As a result, Granderson hit merely seven triples last season, his first in New York.
But ballparks aren't everything. Alderson calls his shortstop's stadium splits a "casual correlation" and Reyes understands that Citi has helped to some extent. Still, he is not sold on the magnitude of its influence, dismissing the fact that 10 of his 12 triples have been hit at home.
"It does not matter where I play," Reyes said. "It's nothing to do with the ballpark because anywhere that I put it in the gap, I'm going to try to make it to third base."
Even so, Reyes' snug fit in Queens is something worth noting from a front-office perspective. Just as the Yankees have traditionally loaded up on left-handed sluggers, the Mets have made pitching and left-handed hitting their priorities, catering to the park in which they play. Their two most prominent free-agent acquisitions last winter were fly-ball pitchers, and their first 14 selections in this month's First-Year Player Draft were either pitchers, left-handed hitters or switch-hitters.
Presumably, catering to Citi Field would also mean considering Reyes when deciding whether or not to move back or scale down the outfield fences -- a perennial discussion since the ballpark's opening in 2009. Talks have again taken place this year, but Alderson said that team officials have not specifically mentioned Reyes in their discussions.
Some part of that may be a reflection of uncertainty.
At least lately, no review of Reyes seems complete without a prognostication of his future. Given the shortstop's impending free agency, many around the team believe there is little chance he will still be with the Mets come August; others think he will at least last the season.
Either way, whisking Reyes from Citi Field would mean supplanting a generational talent from a ballpark uniquely suited to his abilities. Other stadiums around the league, such as Comerica, Coors Field and AT&T Park in San Francisco, could have similar effects, but Reyes admits he has grown comfortable at Citi -- he's hitting .375 at home this season.
It is in Queens, after all, where he has launched most of his triples, his 11-second fluorescent highlights. Unlike home runs, which create a sudden and impulsive frenzy, triples crescendo. The crowd begins to buzz on contact, increasing its volume as Reyes rounds second. By that time, the line between fans and teammates often blurs.
"There's nothing better," Mets outfielder Angel Pagan said, "than seeing a fast guy run fast."
In terms of sheer excitement, Reyes said, triples can be more thrilling than home runs, more exhilarating than stolen bases, more stirring than nearly any other play in baseball.
"A triple's exciting, man," Reyes said. "People love it. And I love it, too."
The 11 seconds of a triple, he knows, can define reputations, contracts and careers. For Reyes, those 11 seconds may have the power to do all three.