The Rise of Alex Reyes

Now healthy, a former top prospect is finally living up to the hype.

I haven’t consistently watched wrestling since I was a teenager. Growing up in the late ’80s and early ’90s, like many other kids my age, I became infatuated with Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Ric Flair, the Ultimate Warrior, Macho Man Randy Savage, Bret ‘the Hitman’ Hart, Ravishing Rick Rude, Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Bam Bam Bigelow, The Big Bossman, The Million-Dollar Man, and countless others. I had wrestling buddies to rough-house with on my trampoline, interactive action figures and a toy wrestling ring, dress-up costumes, and limitless entertainment.

In my teenage years, wrestling transformed into the Attitude Era – thought of by many as the golden age of wrestling – with superstars such as The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Undertaker, Triple H, Shawn Michaels, Mick Foley, Kane, Ken Shamrock, Goldberg, the nWo with Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, and on and on. This was around the time where I phased out of wrestling entertainment.

For whatever reason, over the past few months, I have found myself taking random three-to-five minute dives on YouTube or Facebook and nostalgically watching old highlights and matches of these past eras of wrestling. Once I clicked on one or two of them, the tracking algorithm starting showing me more and more of them – as these apps are prone to do – and I have occasionally obliged by reminiscing about my youth.

Side note: For my money, The Rock is the greatest wrestler of all time. His ring technique, microphone skills, stage presence and charisma, the way he would feed off of and sell his opponents, and his ability to entertain were second-to-none in the industry’s history. I won’t be taking counter-arguments at this time. 

Anyway, as I have found myself going down these random wrestling wormholes on occasion, something donned on me. Now, I’m not in tune with the wrestling world….at all…so I certainly don’t think this was any type of groundbreaking revelation or anything. In fact, I’m sure this phenomenon is well-chronicled and has been commonly understood and accepted for decades. I simply had never given this a single moment of thought since I was around 10 years old.

But every Hulk Hogan match was pretty much exactly the same.

Part 1) The Intro: The “I am a real American” music, the entrance, the interaction with the crowd – injecting energy into the arena.

Part 2) Display of Strength: A brief few moments at the beginning of the match, maybe a body slam or a clothesline, where Hogan shows off his power to the crowd.

Part 3) The Set-Up for the Comeback: Hogan gets beat up for a good long while, tossed around the ring – headlocks, sleeper holds, suplexes, back-breakers, submission holds, that weird reaching-the-hands-up-and-locking-fingers-with-your-opponent thing where they would alternate exerting their might over one another.

Part 4) Hulking Up: Hogan gets fed up, “hulks up”, breaks out the finger-pointing and finger-wagging, and mounts his comeback.

Part 5) The Finishing Moves: three or four big punches, the big boot, the leg drop, one-two-three, and a Hogan victory.

Part 6) The Victory Lap: Flexing his muscles, hyping up the crowd, turning to all four quadrants of the arena, hand-behind-the-ear, showing off the famous 24-inch pythons, and celebrating his victory much to the amusement of the crowd.

There were obviously variations from time to time and different outcomes here-and-there, but overall the formula is one that Hogan and the WWE seemingly went to time and again.

And when I was watching St. Louis closer Alex Reyes close out a win for the Cardinals over the Pirates recently, I randomly thought to myself: Hmmm, his career has sort of been like a Hulk Hogan match.

I’ll try to explain my weird train of thought.

 

The Intro

(The Heralded Prospect Phase)

 

 

The hype surrounding baseball prospects – especially those talented enough to crack a Top 10 list – more often than not exceeds their actual contributions during their professional careers. Obviously, there are exceptions to this, but the excitement from a fanbase projecting “what could be” often creates some unrealistic expectations for prospects. Much in the same way that a wrester’s intro into the arena might be the highlight of the night to his fans if he ends up losing. There is a reason that many fantasy experts will always recommend trading a highly-touted prospect just before or after his MLB debut because they understand the likelihood that this part of a prospect’s journey is often the apex of his fantasy value.

Right-hander Alex Reyes was signed as an 18-year-old by the Cardinals in 2013 out of the Dominican Republic. Despite being born and raised in New Jersey, Reyes opted to live with family in the Dominican Republic while training and forego the amateur draft in hopes of increasing the likelihood that he would be signed by a major league club. After joining the Cardinals organization, he made his professional debut in rookie ball in 2013 with Johnson City in the Appalachian League and would gradually work his way through the Red Birds minor league system until 2016.

As he progressed through the minors, Reyes and his 100-mph fastball became a fixture on Top Prospect lists throughout baseball. Reyes was ranked one of the best prospects in baseball via Baseball America in 2016-2017 and was ranked the top prospect via Baseball Prospectus in 2017. The enthusiasm from Cardinals fans was palpable, much like the joy and energy felt throughout a crowd at a live wrestling event when their favorite wrestler’s music comes over the loudspeakers and they make their grand entrance into the arena. Instead of Hulk-A-Mania, it was Alex-Mania.

In 2015 across three minor league levels, the uber-talented Reyes struck out 151 batters in only 101 1/3 innings (13.4 K/9) with a 2.49 ERA, rightfully earning his place near the top of those lists above. The following season, despite scuffling at Class AAA with Memphis (4.96 ERA) in the Pacific Coast League, Reyes would still be called up to the majors for his debut in August 2016.

 

Display of Strength

(The MLB Debut phase)

 

At the age of 21, Reyes was initially utilized as a reliever before making five starts for the Cardinals down the stretch in 2016. His first impression could not have gone better, as Reyes finished with a 4-1 record, a sublime 1.57 ERA, and a 1.22 WHIP across 46 innings with 52 strikeouts. The highlight was a 3-0 shutout win over the Giants on September 18th when Reyes spun seven scoreless innings with six strikeouts. It took very little time for Reyes to showcase his ability in the process – reminiscent of a wrestler introducing himself to the crowd with a power display at the beginning of a match. The Cardinals believed they had a new ace to anchor their rotation for years to come.

 

The Set-Up for the Comeback

(The Struggle Bus Phase)

 

Not even factoring in a 50-game suspension in 2015 after testing positive for marijuana even before making his MLB debut, Reyes has experienced his share of ups-and-downs during his brief baseball career ever since that dazzling debut in 2016. The 2017-2019 seasons in particular would prove to be very difficult for the hard-throwing right-hander and ultimately left his future in baseball very murky.

In 2017, following that strong rookie impression, Reyes suffered his first major injury, the dreaded partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) of his right elbow, and underwent reconstructive Tommy John surgery in February. He was sidelined for over a year.

The following season, in 2018, after making his way all the way back from his lengthy injury rehab, Reyes made only one appearance at the major league level, pitching four scoreless innings against the Brewers in late May before leaving with another injury – this time to his latissimus (lat) muscle of his upper back, which would again require surgery to repair a torn tendon. This muscle is often damaged with overuse motions that include throwing and pulling.

In 2019, Reyes began the season in the St. Louis bullpen but struggled mightily in four appearances before being sent back down to Class AAA Memphis. It was there that Reyes then broke the pinkie finger on his left (non-throwing hand) when he punched a wall out of frustration. He finished that season with Memphis and posted an uninspiring 7.39 ERA.

 

 

Much like The Rock’s patented WWE finishing move, that 2019 season was surely rock-bottom for the 24-year-old Reyes after having already endured lengthy injury rehabs over the prior two seasons only to be greeted by another injury (of his own doing) and subsequent poor performance.

But as we all know, setbacks are just set-ups for comebacks.

 

Hulking Up

(The “Remember Me” Phase)

 

 

In a bizarre and unprecedented 60-game season in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic the likes of which the MLB had never seen before, an unexpected development happened in The Gateway to the West. A notably trimmer and more athletic Reyes (reportedly having lost 15-20 pounds throughout his arduous and lengthy injury rehab) went relatively unnoticed as he rejoined the big league club as a member of the Cardinals bullpen. Reyes picked up one save and two holds while recording a solid 3.20 ERA across 19 2/3 innings (15 appearances).

 

 

He wasn’t dominant by any stretch (1.42 WHIP), but he also had barely pitched for the better part of the prior three seasons so simply establishing that he was healthy was all the Cardinals could ask. Much like a bruised and battered Hulk Hogan above, I like to imagine that Reyes decided he simply had enough after breaking his finger in 2019 and was ready to “hulk up” in 2020 and mount his attack on opposing batters, unleashing his high 90’s heater with his devastating complement of off-speed pitches. The dramatic weight loss and overall physical transformation only support the idea that Reyes was ready to turn the page and start a new chapter in his career.

 

The Finishing Moves

(The Now You’re In Trouble Phase)

 

After pitching effectively and proving himself healthy in a limited sample size (19 2/3 innings) in 2020, the Cardinals organization set the expectation during spring training that the six-foot-four flamethrower would be used as a reliever in 2021 to manage his workload. The team announced that he would be capped at around 100 innings in a multi-inning relief role to transition back to being a full-time starting pitcher in 2022 and beyond. This makes sense of course, as he certainly carries more value over the long-term as a starter than as a reliever for St. Louis and has always possessed a starter’s repertoire with four (and arguably five) quality pitches.

Fireballer Jordan Hicks – who himself recovered from Tommy John surgery and then elected to sit out the 2020 season due to health concerns (Hicks is a type-1 diabetic) – was thought to be the incumbent closer for the Cardinals entering the season. Then there was starter-turned reliever-turned starter Carlos Martinez, whose role with the team was uncertain (having earned 24 saves in 2019) heading into spring training. Another veteran reliever – Giovanny Gallegos – had also emerged as one of the most dominant relievers in baseball over the past few seasons and provided the Cardinals another strong option at closer.

And yet nearly two months into the season, with Hicks again sidelined due to injury (elbow), Martinez back in the starting rotation, and Gallegos being used as a multi-inning weapon to put out fires in a set-up role, it’s Reyes who has surprisingly emerged as the undisputed closer in St. Louis.

The now 26-year-old has been utterly dominant through the first seven weeks of the season and currently sits second in all of baseball in saves behind Mark Melancon.

 

 

The slimmer, more athletic Reyes is 2-0 in addition to being a perfect 14-for-14 in save opportunities. He has struck out 32 batters in 24 innings (12.0 K/9) and owns a microscopic 0.38 ERA (only one earned run allowed).

It’s hasn’t all been roses though, as the 20 walks allowed certainly are a glaring issue. Walking nearly a batter per inning is a recipe for disaster, and the excessive free passes in conjunction with an unsustainable 96.7% LOB% certainly help explain why his xERA is 3.24. While this suggests some regression may be coming, Reyes has otherwise been nearly un-hittable. Despite a walk rate that rates amongst the worst in the league, he’s allowed a total of ten hits and hasn’t given up a homer. Batters simply are not able to square up Reyes very often, which I’ve noticed when watching the majority of his appearances this season. And on an unrelated note, if you listen closely enough, you may be able to hear the keyboard sounds of “Don’t Draft Closers” apologists typing up their “I told you so’s” with Reyes as their headliner given that Reyes’ ADP this draft season was 428.56 per NFBC.

 

The Victory Lap

(The Success and Celebration Phase)

 

It’s been a long and tumultuous comeback trail to this point for Reyes and what his future holds remains to be seen. He’s certainly never had any sustained length of durability in his brief career, so the injury cloud will always hover over him. And if he continues to excel in the closer role, it would hardly be shocking to see the Cardinals leave him there.

But there have been several instances throughout the course of MLB history where pitchers initially utilized as relievers then transitioned to full-time starters and became perennial Cy Young contenders. Chris Sale in his early days with the White Sox and Johan Santana with the Twins are two names that come to mind. It’s easy to envision a similar path for Reyes.

 

 

Reyes has always profiled as a front-of-the-rotation starting pitcher because of his deep arsenal of pitches. The triple-digits fastball (averaging 96.7 mph this season) has always been the showstopper, coupled with his powerful 12-to-6 downhill curveball. His changeup has always graded out above average, and he also throws a hard sinker. And in 2021, it’s the emergence of his slider – seen above – that has really stood out, as he has significantly increased the usage of that pitch, throwing it more than any pitch aside from his four-seamer. Whether that pattern would continue as a starter, with a much larger workload and strain on his elbow, would be something to monitor closely if and when that happens next year.

 

As illustrated in the chart above, Reyes has ramped up the slider usage as a sharper, harder complement to his fastball in the closer role, while significantly scaling back the use of his curveball. Cardinals manager Mike Shildt mentioned recently that Reyes’ slider “opens up the rest of his arsenal” and that has been on clear display in 2021. Reyes’ slider has registered a staggering 48.7% put-away percentage and 56.3% whiff rate while opposing batters are hitting .034 against it. Point zero three four. That level of dominance would surely get an “OOOOOHH YEAAAHH” from the Macho Man. He’s literally allowed only one hit on that pitch all season, as its current -8 run value ranks amongst the most elite pitches in all of baseball this season (seen below) via Baseball Savant. Not bad for a pitch that he didn’t even throw in 2016.

 

 

Finally healthy after several years spent recovering from injury – along with a notably evident physical metamorphosis – the former top pitching prospect has clearly found a pitch mix in 2021 that is allowing him to excel as one of the top closers in all of baseball. With the opportunity to transition back to being a full-time starter in 2022, the sky is the limit for what a healthy Reyes and his five-pitch repertoire could accomplish if given the opportunity to throw 165+ innings. But for now, Reyes appears content to continue to lay the proverbial smackdown on the rest of the National League. And hopefully in the future, we’ll have plenty more opportunities to see him flex his muscles, pump up the Busch Stadium crowd, and entertain the millions (pause: and millions!) of baseball fans across the country.

 

Photo by Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)

Lucas Spence

Writer for Pitcher List and contributor for FantasyPros and InStreetClothes. Certified Physician Assistant trained in Emergency Medicine + Urgent Care services. Proud husband and father of three. Follow him on Twitter @lspence24. "No amount of money ever bought a second of time." - Tony/Howard Stark

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