With two outs, a runner on second, and your team up 6–0 in the top of the first on the road, what would you do? I won't lie — I'd hack away, trying to pad my numbers.
Jose Reyes is a better man than I, so when he found himself in this situation last Thursday against the Dodgers' Derek Lowe, he swung at the first pitch, fouled it off, and then took four straight pitches — close pitches, sinkers and sliders just off the edge of the plate, the sort Reyes could have slapped just in the interests of putting the ball in play and forcing the defense to do some work. You could see him restraining himself, holding himself back from diving at the outer edge of the plate, on pitch after pitch. He eventually took the walk.
There was nothing particularly unusual about this at-bat, and that is one of the most remarkable stories of this season. Reyes, who drew 27 walks two years ago, is on pace to draw 85 this year. A player who could have played in the majors for 15 years based just on his speed and defense has become one of the more complete and disciplined players in the game, at 24. It's happened so naturally we just take it for granted by now, but we shouldn't. We've never really seen anything like this before.
Take those 85 walks. Since baseball began to integrate in 1947, a grand total of six shortstops age 25 or younger have drawn 80 or more walks in a season. Two of them, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, you may have heard of. The other four are an odd bunch. Don Buddin did it twice for the Red Sox in the late 1950s; he was a very good hitter for a shortstop but had a bad defensive reputation, and played his last game at 28. Roy Smalley was a terrific ballplayer, something like an Edgardo Alfonzo who could play short — a power hitter and excellent defender whose career was derailed by back problems. Chris Speier wasn't quite that good, but he played, mostly as a very solid regular, until he was 39. Finally, there's Dick Howser, who walked 92 times as a 25-year-old rookie, washed out of baseball within a few years, and ended up managing the Royals to a world championship.
Even more impressive is just how much Reyes has improved. Take another set of players, the 43 post-integration shortstops 25 or younger who have drawn 30 or fewer walks while qualifying for the batting title, as Reyes did in 2005. Of them, all of three went on to draw as many as 70 walks in a season even once — Robin Yount, Tony Fernandez, and (of all people) Julio Franco, who averaged 2,665 hits apiece in their careers. None of them improved this aspect of their game with anything like the speed with which Reyes has.
This is a truly odd collection of players, very few of whom are comparable at all to Reyes or to each other, but they do break down into two general groups. Those who came into the league with great speed — Yount, Jeter, Rodriguez, Franco, and Fernandez — all had long, extraordinarily successful careers. The others washed out or broke down early. This makes perfect sense. As a class, middle infielders who break into the majors displaying great discipline and very little speed tend to not have the sort of athleticism you need to last two decades in the majors; those who break in with great speed and quickly develop great discipline can go on to do anything.
Of these players, the best comparison to Reyes is probably Fernandez, a grossly underrated player who won four Gold Gloves and hit .320 or better three times — and never once in his career hit as well as Reyes did last year or this year, scored more than 91 runs, or stole more than 32 bases in a season. You could make a plausible case that Fernandez deserves election to the Hall of Fame, and at this point his career represents something like the worst-case scenario for Reyes.
What's most frightening, though, is the simple fact that what Reyes has done is unique. The signal trait of a historically great ballplayer is, after all, that he does what no one has done before. Reyes is on pace for 85 walks and 78 steals. Since 1947, two players have done that at any age. One of them was Tim Raines; the other one was Rickey Henderson. Each of them was the best player in his league for years and years; each of them played left field, not shortstop. I have absolutely no idea what the future holds for Jose Reyes, but I'd bet he'll end up being remembered more like Yount or Rodriguez or Henderson than like Fernandez. And who knows? Next year he might really surprise us.