Photo by Scott Kane/Icon Sportswire)
If you’re a fan of baseball for the prospect hype, it was hard to resist today’s excitement surrounding Alex Reyes, who missed all of 2017 with Tommy John Surgery and dominated his way through his minor league rehab starts. That is no hyperbole, as Reyes boasted 44 strikeouts while walking just seven in 23 shutout frames over four minor league starts. Many are expecting huge things from Reyes in 2018 and beyond, and I sat down today like many other analysts to get a good look at Reyes for the first time in two seasons.
With MLB debuts, I like to write these articles as the game happens in front of me, presenting what I see with each pitch and at-bat, as well as reporting the flow of the game in front of me. Let’s take it from the first batter of the game.
Out of the gate, it was fantastic to see Reyes pumping strikes, with two quick heaters over the plate for a quick 0-2 count. Remember, 2016 returned a horrid 12.2% walk rate in 46.0 frames and as long as walks are down, Reyes should have success.
After establishing 97mph heat to Lorenzo Cain, Reyes showed off something I didn’t expect. A plus slider:
In his 2016 stint, Reyes threw his slider under 5% of the time, leaning on his changeup as the primary secondary pitch, and favoring his curveball more when needing a breaker. This is not the same pitch. This is a fantastic pitch and it’s hard to deny it after watching it in slow-motion:
Suddenly I’m getting really excited. Maybe this is the secret to Reyes figuring out his walk rate. If he’s getting more chases off the plate (27.5% overall in 2016), that will add up to more strikes, while also giving him more confidence to throw fastballs over the plate – with batters aware of this slide piece, batters will have hesitation to cheat on his fastball.
After a strikeout on three pitches, he had a little more trouble with Christian Yelich. It looks like he’s saving his slider for right-handers and favoring his changeup for left-handers, and he threw this 2-1 slow ball to Yelich that was sent to right-field for a single:
It’s not a great changeup, but it’s not terrible either, landing at the bottom of the zone and Yelich got good wood on it. Coming it at 90mph without exaggerated movement may be an issue, though this is the only one we’ve seen thus far.
Reyes was able to pick-off Yelich at first base, helping him ease through the first inning unscathed. Back to the windup, Reyes featured a pair of excellent sliders to Jesus Aguilar that earned himself his second strikeout of the game:
This slider is looking seriously legit and paired with heat, it’s an elite 1-2 punch against right-handers.
And to the point about playing the two off each other, take a look at this foul ball at 98mph earlier in the count:
It’s a 2-1 pitch that normally calls for batters killing fastballs located anywhere near the middle of the plate, but because Reyes was able to fool Aguilar with a nasty slider in 0-0 pitch, Aguilar was unable to commit to the swing early enough, and making every tick of this 98mph pitch count as the ball curled foul. That’s the kind of heat that makes Reyes so tantalizing, especially if it comes with this newfound slider.
I was wondering if Reyes’ approach against Yelich would be consistent across all left-handers and his first at-bat of the second helped as he faced Travis Shaw. He got ahead with a fastball up, then dropped this 0-1 curveball that may have been a fortunate call:
That’s a nice looking hook, which may be the solution for left-handers as the changeup wasn’t great against Yelich. It’s not as tight command-wise as his slider, but with time I can see this being a plus offering that can fall under the plate and create indecisive swings constantly.
Reyes battled with Shaw to a 3-2 count, then tossed a pair of poor changeups to finish the at-bat, one crushed well foul, and the other never looking like a strike as it faded off the plate:
Disappointing, to say the least, as Reyes isn’t showcasing a full repertoire just yet. Here’s to hoping he can find the feel for his changeup moving forward as it was such a major pitch for him in 2016.
Back to a right-hander, Reyes opened the next at-bat with a solid slider landing along the outside corner to Domingo Santana. However, it isn’t straight FB/SL with righties and FB/CB/CH against lefties as his 1-1 pitch was a hanging curveball that Santana slapped to the outfield for a hit:
This needs to be refined as it has a lot of vertical drop that should end at the knees or ankles, not the waist.
The first pitch to Jonathan Villar had me a little concerned. It wasn’t a bad miss – a 96mph fastball just off the inside corner – but I was starting to wonder how many heaters we’ve seen for strikes thus far. The answer? Six over 12. Not great, but not a good sample and maybe this improves.
A curveball followed in a 1-1 count, leading to a questionable double play, and while momentum is swinging back from a tough jam, Reyes gets himself in another hole, walking Eric Sogard on four straight fastballs.
Maybe it’s a left-handed batter thing. Maybe it’s nerves. Either way, Reyes’ fastball command is a problem and he needs to fix it. He’s at 31 pitches now and it’s only going to get higher against Erik Kratz.
He got a generous 1-0 call for a 1-1 count on an inside heater, followed by a fastball down the pipe at 95mph. I’m happy to see this as Reyes has enough heat to get away with mistakes over the plate and while he wasn’t aiming middle-middle, I prefer taking this chance than getting to a 2-1 count and possibly leading to another walk.
Now at 1-2, Reyes is throwing the kitchen sink at Kratz. A slider down and off the plate identical to the Jesus Aguilar strikeout pitch returns a foul ball, then there’s a curveball that got plenty of the plate got a desperate hack for another foul, then back to the slider that was chopped for another wasted pitch.
What does he do now? An elevated fastball would get the job done, but they go with an outside heater that never looks like a strike and easily taken for a 2-2 count. Now trying to do a bit too much, Reyes chose a curveball and overthrew it, letting it float high-and-tight for a casual HBP.
This was the #8 hitter – you know, hitting legend Erik Kratz – and Reyes overthought the entire at-bat, leading to poor execution. Cardinals pitching coach Mike Maddux went out to calm him down, telling him that the opposing pitcher Junior Guerra is up next and everything will be fine.
It was, for the most part. This is the 0-1 pitch that ended the inning with the bases loaded:
I’ll be honest, I thought this was a bases-clearing double off the bat as Reyes hung a slider to the anxious Guerra. But good things happen when you force hitters to put the ball in play and Reyes left the inning unscathed. Let’s hope he can improve his fastball command for inning #3 and maybe everything else will fall into place from there.
The first pitch of the inning was a 93mph heater in the middle of the zone. Reyes was clearly trying to do whatever he can to get an early strike and it worked, as Lorenzo Cain took it for strike one. After getting to 0-2 with a slider that nipped the top of the zone, he tried to throw the same pitch he fanned Cain on in the first, but no dice as it landed a little too far off the zone.
The 1-2 pitch was an elevated heater that rode up-and-in to Cain and what should normally be an out was instead fisted off into center field for a single:
Sure, if this is a slight farther away from Cain maybe it doesn’t catch his bat handle and turns into a strikeout, but this is an out more times than not and you simply have to shrug this one off.
After getting to 0-2 with heaters against Christian Yelich, Reyes tried to backdoor with a slider, a surprising pitch, but not executed well enough as it never found the zone.
Reyes got fortunate for the second time today, with Cain caught trying to advance to second following a terribly bounced changeup. Now bases open and a 3-2 count to Yelich, Reyes fired a 95mph fastball over the heart of the plate that bounced to the shortstop for an out.
It was nothing special, but I was glad to see Reyes favoring to trust his heater over the zone at a slower speed instead of perfectly along the corners at a higher velocity.
That lower velocity stuck with Aguilar, sitting 93-94, and the final pitch resulted in a fly out off a 94mph heater:
It’s not dominating and should probably have been ball four, and even with the lower velocity, I’m not too confident in Reyes’ ability to throw strikes – two of these three batters got to 3-ball counts. There’s still work to be done here, and maybe the solution is polishing the secondary stuff to pitch backwards instead of pulling off velocity from the heater.
It’s the fourth frame and while I’m okay sacrificing some velocity as long as it comes with better pitch locations, Reyes is sitting 91-93mph now and I’m not sure I’m a fan of it. His first two at-bats ended on 92-93mph fastballs resulting in hard-hit balls that happened to find gloves:
These outs preceded three straight heaters to Jonathan Villar that not only made me concerned for his health but also the Cardinals’ training staff:
Following a brief chat on the mound, Reyes said he was fine, continued pitching, and the following offering was 96mph in the dirt, as if so to say “see, I’m fine. I’m just throwing softer because my fastball command is poor.” The at-bat resulted in a flyout to center on a 3-2 pitch that Villar gave a ride:
Regardless of all the drama, the final pitch of the frame was 96mph that was lofted to center for an out, and it was Reyes’ quickest inning. Not much to take away here, but this isn’t the dominating arm that the first inning suggested. The command wasn’t there to make batters uncomfortable, while his secondary pitches weren’t getting the whiffs we want.
Reyes was pulled after four frames and just 73 pitches, leading to speculation that Reyes was injured. After all, here is his velocity track for the start:
You can even see the moment where the trainer came out and Reyes threw four pitches above 95mph to end his outing. Still, there could be something there and it’s we should keep an eye on it.
I was a little conflicted watching this one. Let’s say that Reyes is able to sit 96-97mph moving forward, does that come with command? It definitely looked like he was lowering the velocity in order to throw more strikes with his fastball, but it’s not a trade-off I’m okay with. A 92-93mph Reyes certainly doesn’t come with the same upside his rehab starts dictated as he’s not able to spot the pitch like contemporaries Mike Soroka or Nick Kingham. In addition, I loved his slider in the opening frame, but after those three early whiffs, he failed to earn another through the final three innings, ending with just three on 18 thrown – the only swings and misses Reyes earned on any of his pitches.
This could have been jitters – it was Reyes’ first game in the majors since 2016 and remember, he is just 23-years-old. But this also wasn’t a polished pitcher ready to dominate with an array of plus pitches. I think that is in there with a big hook that will confound batters, a tight slider that had its moments, and a fastball that hinted 98mph and triple digits in the past, but I can’t get fully on board in his next start or two.
And then there is a changeup that he threw nine times here but barely got any value out of. This was a pitch he featured over 20% in 2016 and I have to believe will get a bigger spotlight in future starts. I should also note that I personally counted just four or five thrown and it’s possible the slow fastballs in the fourth inning confused the PitchF/x system.
In short, I think this start gives us a solid check-in on the hype train, helping us lower our expectations to reasonable levels, while it shouldn’t derail the car. Barring legitimate injury concerns, I imagine the second start of the season will return better results, with the tough debut out of the way. The arsenal is still there to hint Top 40 upside, let’s just hope the velocity can stay up without sacrificing strikes while his secondary offerings gain a touch of consistency.