Stealing Mickey's Mantle

José Reyes could be the greatest—if he doesn't figure out just how much Mets fans want from him

Perhaps José Reyes smiles so easily now because he does not yet understand the burden his fans are putting on him.

How good is José Reyes? How good can he be? In the October 9, 2006, ESPN The Magazine, the Elias Sports Bureau's Steve Hirdt wrote that Reyes had just completed "a season the likes of which has never been seen. Start with his signature statistical category. With 17 triples in 2005 and the same number [in '06], Reyes became the first major leaguer with consecutive seasons of that many three-baggers since Paul Waner, Earle Combs, and Heinie Manush (Hall of Famers all) did it in 1927 and 1928 . . . no player in the history of the major leagues"—emphasis Hirdt's—"has ever had a season with as many runs, as many hits, as many homers, and as many steals as Reyes has produced in 2006." (Reyes's final numbers were 122 runs, 194 hits, 19 home runs, and 64 steals.)

And yet, Reyes has his skeptics. Steven Goldman of Baseball Prospectus regards Reyes's high totals in all of those categories as "more of a sign of how unique he is than how valuable. The hits are impressive, but one of the reasons he gets so many hits is because he swings at so many pitches. If he's going to be a legitimate leadoff hitter, he's got to get more walks. As it is, he uses up too many outs. If he doesn't get on base more often, all the speed in the world won't help him."

Goldman reflects a concern that many analysts have for Reyes's relative weakness in the most important of all hitting categories, on-base percentage, which measures how often a player reaches base by hits, walks, and being hit by pitches. Last year Reyes reached base safely just slightly over 35 percent of the time he came up to the plate, and his career average is just over 32 percent. "To be a really effective hitter," says Goldman, "he's got to get up at least in the .370 range." Goldman has yet another concern: "His career average as a leftie is just .272, with only a .310 on-base average. (He's much better batting right-handed against lefties: a .310 BA and a .343 OBP.) But the problem is, he's going to see at least three right-handed pitchers for every left-hander, which mean he'll be batting left-handed nearly 75 percent of the time—maybe more if opposing managers figure out he has a weakness." (Reyes has only been switch-hitting since the age of 15.)

Is José Reyes as good as Derek Jeter? Since about midway through last season, this has been the number one sports topic in New York bars, radio call-ins, and chat rooms. To put it as simply as possible, the answer is: No, or at least, not yet.

As base runners, they are almost exactly even. Reyes is faster than Jeter, who, at 33, has lost a step, but Jeter is regarded by many as the smartest base runner in the game. Reyes steals more bases, but Jeter plays in a league where power overshadows speed. Even in the National League, the value of stolen bases isn't all that great. In any event, both players have had just about exactly the same success rate, slightly more than 80 percent, an indication that under the same circumstances, they'd have about the same number of steals—or at least the same number of meaningful ones, as Jeter, who plays in a power-laden lineup, seldom attempts a steal unless the game is late and the score is close.

Reyes is a superior fielder with more range than Jeter, but the advantage isn't enough at present to counter Jeter's sizable advantage as a hitter. Last year Reyes had a slugging percentage that was a fraction higher than Jeter's, .487 to .483, but Jeter's advantage in the most important of hitting stats, on-base percentage, was eye-opening: 63 points (.417 to .354).

Perhaps the question should be framed another way: Is Reyes as good or better than Jeter was at this point in their careers? Below are Reyes's stats going into this season, and Jeter's at a comparable point in his career, through the 1998 season.

At Bats Runs HR RBIs BA OBP Slg

Reyes 1,837 301 33 185 .285 .321 .427

Jeter 1,900 352 39 239 .308 .374 .436

In this comparison, Jeter had 63 more at bats, and the difference in power is slight, though tipping in Jeter's direction. The gap in batting average and on-base percentage is significant **.

And there is yet one more important statistic on Jeter's side of the ledger: After playing three full seasons, he already had two World Series rings. Yes, you're right, that's not a fair comparison, since one player can only do so much to put his team into the World Series. But this is New York, and all comparisons here sooner or later go to the bottom line. Ask Alex Rodriguez. New York fans were ecstatic when A-Rod came here, but he hasn't produced any championships, and they are no longer enthralled. José Reyes is expected to make World Series winners out of the Mets, and if he doesn't do that soon, the enchantment he has brought to New York baseball may soon dissipate.

How long has Reyes got before the fans and the media start to become a bit disillusioned? Put it this way: By the time Derek Jeter was 24, people were no longer talking about his potential, they were talking about what he had done. If José Reyes is going to be great, now is the time. Vamos a ver.

**Editor's note: This online version was revised 03.29.07.
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