Shortly after arriving in Port St. Lucie, Fla., for Spring Training in February, Jose Reyes met with new hitting coach Dave Hudgens, who quite plainly informed Reyes that he was going to improve his on-base percentage. And so the lessons began. Hudgens implored Reyes to lay off high heaters and two-strike breaking balls in the dirt. Hudgens taught Reyes to punch outside pitches to the opposite field.
Over the next seven months under Hudgens' tutelage, Reyes completed a remarkable transformation from an above-average hitter with explosive baserunning abilities to an elite pure hitter and five-tool player. Once considered arguably the game's most exciting man, Reyes has since evolved into one of the planet's best hitters.
The latest evidence is his nomination for Major League Baseball's Hank Aaron Award, presented annually to the top hitter in each league.
For the second straight year, a special panel of Hall of Fame players led by Aaron will join fans in voting for the award.
This year, the Hall of Fame panel will include two new members -- personally selected by Aaron -- Roberto Alomar and Joe Morgan. They join panelists from last year, which included Tony Gwynn, Paul Molitor, Willie McCovey, Billy Williams and Robin Yount, forming a group comprised of some of the greatest offensive players of all-time. These Hall of Famers -- who combined for 23,536 hits, 11,445 RBI and exactly 2,800 home runs -- have all agreed to join Aaron in lending their expertise to select the best offensive performers in each League.
Fans will have the opportunity to select one winner from each league from a list comprising one finalist per club through Sunday. The winners will be announced during the World Series.
No Mets player has won the award since its introduction in 1999.
Then again, no Mets player has ever accomplished many of the things that Reyes did this season, including winning the NL batting title with a .337 average.
"Anybody who wouldn't want Jose Reyes on their team, they need to reevaluate some stuff," Mets manager Terry Collins said.
The key to the shortstop's success has been little secret to those around the Mets. Always a strong hitter, Reyes nonetheless battled limitations due to a marked lack of plate discipline. With two strikes against him, Reyes was prone to chasing pitches well beyond the zone, sapping his batting average and undermining his ability to reach base. As a result, Reyes entered this season with a respectable .286 career average and a .335 on-base percentage, but nothing more.
This season, Reyes refined his two-strike approach, protecting the plate by ignoring bad pitches and fouling off so-called pitcher's pitches. Though he is not necessarily swinging at fewer offerings outside the strike zone, Reyes is making contact with those pitches far more than ever before, suggesting that he has improved his plate coverage to significant benefit.
"I'm very proud, because I feel like I made some good adjustments this year," he said. "I cut down my strikeouts. I put the ball in play more. I made some adjustments to hit to the opposite field more, the middle of the field."
The results have been staggering. Always solid but never an elite hitter, Reyes remained in contention for the National League batting title all season, playing around two hamstring injuries to post career highs in batting average and on-base percentage -- each by huge margins. Until the first of his injuries hit in July, Reyes was threatening to finish with more triples than any player since the dead-ball era.
"My first year around him," Collins said, "I saw what kind of player he can be."
"I still feel like I'm getting better," Reyes said. "I'm learning a lot about hitting."
At age 28, Reyes is only now entering his prime. Though questions remain as to where the free-agent-to-be will spend the next decade of his career, Reyes has proven that -- as long as he can remain healthy -- he possesses the tools to remain one of the game's foremost hitters for the foreseeable future.
His improvements at the plate have confirmed that much.
"Before, I used to pull the ball a lot," Reyes said. "But now, I hit more to left field and to the middle of the diamond. I think that's helped me a lot. And to cut out my strikeouts too, that was huge.
"Now, I wait for my pitch. You're going to swing at bad pitches because that's the way it is, but I feel like I cut that out quite a bit."
Reyes is hardly the image of Aaron, a classic power hitter who amassed 20 seasons of at least 20 home runs -- a feat that the shortstop has yet to accomplish even once in his nine-year career. But Reyes is perhaps the prototype for a modern offensive force: capable of hitting for power and average while reaching base at an above-average clip.
Amongst the Mets, no one had a better offensive season in 2011. It is only natural that accolades should follow.