What happened to Franmil Reyes?
The Cleveland Guardians’ deposed cleanup hitter stopped doing what he’s paid to do. Reyes is paid to hit home runs and drive in runs as the cleanup hitter in a Guardians lineup that ranks 29th out of 30 major league teams in home runs.
Home runs and RBI used to be a Reyes specialty. In 2019 he hit 37 homers and in 2021 he hit 30. This year only three Guardians have hit double figures in home runs, and Reyes isn’t one of them.
On August 2 Guardians management got tired of waiting and optioned the 26-year-old slumping slugger, and his nine home runs, to Triple-A Columbus.
“It was not a fun conversation,” said Guardians manager Terry Francona. “He’s not getting to fastballs as well as in the past, and he was showing some frustration. Hopefully he can go down and find the form he’s had in the past.”
Last year on August 5 Reyes had 20 home runs and 51 RBI. This year on August 5: nine home runs and 28 RBI.
In 56 at bats over his last 16 games with Cleveland, prior to being demoted, Reyes hit .179, with one home run, two RBI, 14 strikeouts and two walks. His prolonged slump was doubly disappointing for the Guardians because Reyes serves two roles in Cleveland’s lineup.
One is as the classic cleanup hitter, the slugger whose power scares other teams. Reyes’ other role is as the big bat behind No. 3 hitter Jose Ramirez. Vintage Reyes makes opposing teams think twice about pitching around Ramirez.
In reality, Reyes’ season-long slump did little in the way of protecting Ramirez from being pitched around, which makes Ramirez’s all-star season even more impressive. It also makes Reyes’ slump even more frustrating for Guardians officials.
“To his credit, he put a lot of work in to get back on track, but it just hasn’t clicked for him,” said Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti of Reyes.
Among the right-handed hitting Reyes’ problems has been his inability to hit left-handed pitching. Last year, when he belted 30 home runs, Reyes hit .260 with a .356 on-base percentage and .520 slugging percentage vs. lefties. This year, at the time of his demotion he was hitting .167 with a .203 on-base percentage and .242 slugging percentage vs. lefties.
Against all pitching Reyes’ strikeout rate has gone from 32% last year to 37.1% this year, while his walk rate has plunged from 9.2% last year to 5.0% this year.
For the most part pitchers are throwing him breaking balls away, and he’s consistently chasing them. Last year he averaged one home run every 14.7 at bats. This year he’s averaging one every 29.2 at bats.
“We’re still committed to helping him, but at this point he has to work it out at Triple-A,” Antonetti said. “He has to get on track, and back to being the productive hitter he’s capable of being, and find his way back here to help us out. But for right now, other guys will get those opportunities.”
The “other guys” are all younger guys. In recent weeks Cleveland has begun to rotate young outfield prospects Oscar Gonzalez, Nolan Jones, and Will Benson into the lineup, mostly in right field, and at designated hitter.
Both Gonzalez and Jones have had some good moments. Benson, called up from Columbus on August 1, has started games in right and center field, and may, according to Francona, be given some looks at first base.
At Columbus, Reyes has hit the ground running. In his first seven games he slashed .333/.367/.593, with a .959 OPS.360/.346/.640, with a .986. In 30 at bats, he hit two home runs, with six RBI, six strikeouts, and two walks.
The road back to Cleveland isn’t insurmountable for Reyes, as long as he continues to show progress. At 26, he is still considered part of the core of young players the front office is determined to build around. Cleveland has the youngest roster in the major leagues, and most of the reviews on the young players have been positive ones.
Antonetti and Francona both said one of the reasons Cleveland chose not to make any moves at the trade deadline, despite, at the time, being in second place in the AL Central, one game behind division-leading Minnesota, is that team officials like the chemistry and potential of the young players currently getting most of the playing time.
Reyes was expected to be in that group, but on a Guardians team that has struck out the fewest times in the major leagues, nearly 60 fewer times than any other American League team, Reyes’ 104 strikeouts – 31 more than any other Guardians hitter – minus the requisite home run production, had become untenable.