Continuing my ongoing series on intriguing and potentially important Cardinals for 2021. Today I look at the abundantly talented pitcher, Alex Reyes

I don’t know if I’d call it a debate, but it’s been fun to watch folks line up to boost one candidate or another to open the season as the Cardinals’ fifth starting pitcher.  

You’ve got the stubborn Carlos Martinez backers (I’m in) who think it’s absurd to ignore the obvious reality: he’s healthy, happy and stretched out. He kicked hitter’s arses in the Carribean Series. He could start and pitch five or six innings right now. He was a Top 10 MLB starting pitcher from 2015 through 2017. And with a free-agent opportunity looming next offseason, he’s extremely motivated to reestablish his value as a starting pitcher. 

You’ve got the lovely dreamers who understandably remain spellbound by the wickedness of Reyes’ talent. But there’s more to it than that. The Reyes narrative is powerful — and possibly addictive to writers and talkers: 

The Cardinals’ Best Pitching Prospect In Franchise History Overcomes Years of Painful Injuries and Disappointment To Make Triumphant Return And Lead Our Team To Promised Land. 

Or something like that. 

(Oh, and I suppose there’s some support for John Gant, but we’ll deal with him at a later time.)

Now, let’s be serious: 

First, anyone who cares about Reyes or the Cardinals is vigorously rooting for the 26-year-old righthander to flourish and dominate on a big-league mound. The sequence of injuries that knocked him off that mound were cruel and unfair. This man deserves years of sound, worry-free pitching health. 

Second, even after an extensive absence the formidable Reyes talent remains intact. He was a behemoth in the short-schedule 2020 season, working in 15 games (19.2 IP) and carving a 3.20 ERA with a career-best 31.4% strikeout rate. 

Finally, none of this means Reyes should be a starting pitcher at this stage of his comeback — or that it makes sense to put him in the rotation after missing all but a small percentage of the past four seasons. 

Not yet, anyway … even with the “anything is possible” caveat attached. 

“He’s talented enough to be in the rotation, but he’s going to have to earn that spot,” Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said earlier this week, via Zoom conference. “And if he doesn’t, then he’s someone that you could see out of the bullpen.”

And then Mozeliak got to the truth — and reality — of the Reyes question.

“ I do think, taking a step back from that comment, he is someone that really hasn’t pitched a lot of innings over the last four years,” Mozeliak said. “I do think we have to be very cognizant of that. And it wouldn’t shock me if we tried to take baby steps and ultimately maybe next year we start to pencil him in as one of the five for the rotation. But he is someone that we want to give some opportunities to stretch out, and then how that role plays out time will tell.” 

Reyes was one of the STL highlights of last season’s effort to play ball during a pandemic. 

  • He averaged a career-high 97.9 mph on his four-seam fastball. (Source: Brooks Baseball.) Including his sinker, slider and curve, Reyes popped an imposing 14.2% swinging-strike rate. Excluding the fastballs that hitters fouled off, Reyes had a 28% whiff/swing rate on the four-seamer. 
  • Even when hitters connected with that vile Reyes four-seam fastball, the result was a lot of weak contact: two extra-base hits and a  .265 slugging percentage in 34 at-bats that ended with that pitch. 
  • LH batters hit .067 against the Reyes four-seam last season (1 for 16.) And LH batters were 0 for 10 against his slider. 
  • Reyes turned to the sinker more often in 2020. And while it wasn’t as effective against LH batters, he used it to mess up RH batters (0 for 12.) And that was important because RH batters had better results against his four-seam (.444 slug.) The sinker was a key pitch vs. RHB. 
  • Last season Reyes gave hitters from both sides of the plate something else to see, and they didn’t like it much: a curveball looped in on two-strike counts. The results were outstanding for Reyes … 0-for-11, eight strikeouts. 

These are all small samples, yes. But it’s all we have to work with from 2020. And when a big pitcher with a big arm is whipping 98 mph fastballs by overmatched hitters, breaking off two-strike curves to bend their knees and their minds, the visual evidence will suffice. The movement on Reyes’ pitches in 2020 was crazy. 

“Just a force out of the bullpen at the end of the year,” Cards starter Adam Wainwright said of Reyes recently, in an interview with KMOX. “He could pitch in whatever capacity, whatever role he was asked to. So the question becomes, obviously, can he stay healthy as a starter? He’s had some rotten luck with injuries, but he’s one of the most talented guys I’ve been around.”

OK … considering that Reyes has his best-ever fastball, a solid slider (.211 BA), a weaponized sinker and an improved curve … nice variety! … in 2020, then why not just put him in the rotation?

Five answers: 

1–Reyes has pitched 26 and ⅔ innings since 2016. That’s four seasons of ball. Mozeliak made the point in his starter-reliever response to the Reyes inquiry. Going from only 26 and ⅔ innings over four seasons and into a starting role … that’s a big leap. Too much too soon and all of that. And why risk another injury? Baseball general managers and field managers are stressing out over the idea of putting a lot of innings on arms after last season’s mini-schedule. And they’re concerned about that with guys — unlike Reyes — that have been pitching regularly and piling up innings in recent seasons. 

2–The Cardinals have five capable starters lined up. And if they all stay healthy this spring, it’s fine to roll with Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas, K.K. Kim, and Carlos Martinez. You don’t need to press the Reyes button. Besides, if there’s a need you always have the John Gant button. And other buttons. Many buttons. 

3–It’s going to take a while for potential closer Jordan Hicks to build up the necessary stamina; he hasn’t pitched in an MLB game since June 22, 2019. And as Alex Reyes displayed last season, he has what it takes to be a malicious, merciless closer. 

4–Reyes has a major problem: too many walks, too many pitches. His 16.3% walk rate in 2020 was obviously too high. But that’s been the case all along. Since the start of the 2016 season, among 677 MLB pitchers that have worked at least 70 innings over that time, Reyes’ 14.7% walk rate is seventh-worst among the 677. 

5–But wait. Doesn’t he walk too many hitters as a reliever? (Yes.) So what’s the difference? As a late-inning reliever, Reyes mostly will go one inning per appearance — with a few two-inning assignments mixed in. He can give you that inning, or inning plus. He has the heat, the swing-and-miss wipeout stuff, to overcome those walks. But if you’re asking him to be a starter, his high pitch counts would cause too many short starts. He’d use up his safe level of pitches too soon, and leave starts too early, and that puts a burden on a bullpen.

It isn’t just about counting pitches; it’s about the fatigue strain caused by having Reyes throw 75-to-100 pitches in a game. The more he throws in a start, the more vulnerable he comes. 

Reyes averaged just under 19 pitches per inning last year. In his other healthy season, 2016, that average was close to 18 pitches per inning. (Ideally, you want an average of 15 pitches per IP.) Reyes made one start last season and walked three batters in his one inning. He threw 24 pitches; only 10 were strikes. 

To be fair, Reyes has made only seven career MLB starts and that isn’t enough to justify a verdict … one way or another. But given scarcity of innings over the last four years, his pattern of inflated walk rates and high pitch counts, his overpowering relief performance, and the Cardinals’ solid starting-pitching depth for now … 

Instead of having Reyes start — and in effect start over — the sensible thing to do is put Reyes in position to build on what he restarted last season. He restarted his career after essentially missing three consecutive seasons. And he restarted his career as a reliever. … a wipeout-stuff reliever. And while the Reyes role can be revisited later, it’s smart to be on the cautious side and stay with what’s working. 

Thanks for reading. Have an awesome weekend! 

–Bernie 

Check out Bernie’s sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com  … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store. 

 

Bernie Miklasz
Bernie Miklasz

For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.