Alex Reyes Will Emerge as MLB's Newest Ace in 2017 Rookie Season

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Alex Reyes Will Emerge as MLB's Newest Ace in 2017 Rookie Season
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
Beware Alex Reyes, rising star.

Alex Reyes' journey has already taken him from New Jersey to the Dominican Republic to the top of prospect rankings and finally to the major leagues in 2016.

Next stop: the top of the St. Louis Cardinals starting rotation.

OK, so that's not set in stone. With a healthy Lance Lynn set to rejoin Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Mike Leake and Michael Wacha in 2017, the Cardinals have five proven starters for five spots. That's a tough nut for a 22-year-old with only 46 major league innings to crack.

The Cardinals did remove a key barrier in Reyes' way when they traded Jaime Garcia in December, however. After that, Mike Matheny declared the young right-hander would get his shot.

"He should be a starting pitcher," the skipper said, via MLB.com. "We'll see how it plays out through spring training. There are certain guys who have slotted innings set for them, and Alex is going to have those. He's earned that."

No kidding. With a 1.57 ERA in 12 appearances (five starts) last year, Reyes was a shot in the arm for a Cardinals pitching staff that had tumbled from the high perch it had occupied in 2015. That's pretty good as far as first impressions go, and it wasn't even enough work to strip Reyes of his rookie status. 

That means Reyes is technically still a prospect. And my, what a prospect he is.

Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images
If Reyes has made anything clear, it's that his stuff is legit.

While there was some disagreement about the league's best hitting prospect going into 2017, Reyes ran away as the best pitching prospect in MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo's poll of MLB executives.

"I don't even know who else is a candidate," said one pro scouting director. "Reyes has the best combo of stuff and results with the stuff."

Reyes' stuff has had scouts drooling for years. Baseball America's report on him last year, for example, remarked he featured "closer stuff" for six or seven innings when he was at his best. That included a fastball that could climb as high as 100 mph and a 12-to-6 curveball described as a "true hammer."

In the minors, Reyes used his weapons to strike out 12.1 batters per nine innings. But it wasn’t until he was promoted in August that fans got a proper introduction to his stuff.

It must have been love at first sight for many, as Reyes pitched a 1-2-3 inning that featured a couple of 101 mph fastballs in his debut:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Per Brooks Baseball, Reyes was no longer flirting with triple digits by the time the Cardinals were stretching him out as a starter and long reliever in September. But he was still sitting in the mid-90s. And overall, Baseball Prospectus vouches that Reyes showed a fastball that ranked in the top 10 in average velocity (96.7 mph) and whiff-per-swing rate (26.9 percent).

As for Reyes' other notorious offering, he used his curveball sparingly by throwing it only about 8 percent of the time. However, the curves he did throw lived up to their "hammer" reputation by ranking here in downward action, per Baseball Prospectus:

  1. Alex Reyes: -11.57 in.
  2. Mike Fiers: -11.33 in.
  3. Seth Lugo: -11.18 in.
  4. Chris Tillman: -10.52 in.
  5. Evan Scribner: -10.44 in.

That's what Reyes' ball-on-string curve looks like in numbers. And now for moving pictures:

The revelation of Reyes' breakthrough, though, was the quality of two supposedly inferior pitches. 

Although scouts didn't ignore his changeup during his journey to The Show, the consensus was that it lagged behind his heater and hook. But it was an effective go-to pitch for him against major league hitters. It accounted for 23.7 percent of his offerings and held batters to a .172 average.

Contrary to those of his fastball and curveball, the measurements on Reyes' changeup aren't eye-popping. Its effectiveness is more a matter of location and deception. Reyes showed an ability to (mostly) spot it on the glove-side corner of the strike zone, where it worked well in tandem with (mostly) high fastballs because...

Well, let's let the man himself explain.

“I feel like that [the changeup is] more of a swing-and-miss pitch for me now because hitters have to be geared up for the fastball,” he told J.J. Cooper of Baseball America.

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
Reyes is emerging as a legit four-pitch pitcher.

The other pitch that served Reyes surprisingly well is the slider that he broke out in September. He threw it more often than his curveball that month and limited hitters to a .143 average with it.

This is another pitch that doesn't have otherworldly measurements. But albeit in a limited sample, he showed it's the breaking pitch he has better control of. Whereas his curveballs were all over the place, his sliders routinely broke off the glove-side corner.

That means Reyes impressed with four pitches from either a sheer electricity perspective or from a command-and-sequencing perspective. With an arsenal that loaded, it's no wonder opposing hitters were so overwhelmed.

It would've been good enough if Reyes had dazzled only with his rate of 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings. But even his solid .283 batting average on balls in play doesn't capture how well he managed contact. Per Baseball Savant, the average exit velocity off him was an MLB-low 84.9 mph.

Lowest Average Exit Velocity in 2016 (Min. 100 Batted Balls)
Rank Player Balls in Play Exit Velo (mph)
1 Alex Reyes 100 84.9
2 Jeremy Jeffress 152 85.0
3 Zach Duke 131 85.0
4 Tyler Anderson 309 85.1
5 CC Sabathia 461 85.3

Baseball Savant

Since hitting Reyes' stuff is such a challenge, arguably the best strategy against him is for hitters to keep their bats on their shoulders.

Although Reyes' stuff was as advertised last season, it's less encouraging that his control was also as advertised. He walked 4.6 batters per nine innings in the minors and stayed that course by walking 4.5 per nine innings in the majors.

That's no way to be efficient, and it also lessens his margin for error. Clearly, this defect needs fixing.

However, that doesn't seem to be a major undertaking.

Reyes isn't walking batters because he's a small dude with a high-effort delivery. Even his listed size of 6'3" and 175 pounds seems conservative, and he shows his strength and athleticism with every pitch. He puts as much effort into throwing a baseball as Average Joe does into changing the channel.

As Christopher Crawford and George Bissell of Baseball Prospectus noted upon Reyes' arrival, his challenge is maintaining a consistent arm slot. That should be a matter of making simple tweaks rather than undergoing a major mechanical overhaul.

That's to say Reyes isn't far away from the leap between dominating in a small sample size and dominating over a larger one.

I'll leave it to Wainwright (via Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal) to explain what that means:

As everyone will have noticed by now, there's no argument here.

                                

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com, Brooks Baseball and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked. 

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