Alex Reyes Might Have Saved the Cardinals’ Season

Alex Reyes was only called up in August. He’s appeared in just 10 games, started just three and thrown only 35 of the Cardinals’ 1352.1 innings. He is certainly not the most valuable player on the team. He isn’t the most important, either. He’s not their best reliever (because of Seung Hwan Oh’s great performance), and he’s not the best starter on the team (that’s Carlos Martinez). When it comes to being in the right place at the right time, however, and taking on multiple roles out of the bullpen and, most recently, pitching seven shutout innings against a team also threatening for a Wild Card spot in the Giants, there is an argument to be made that Alex Reyes has saved the Cardinals’ season.

Reyes is the type of prospect over whom fans drool, and his arsenal has translated immediately to the majors. He’s already topped 100 mph on his fastball 18 times this season. He has a curveball with more vertical movement than any other pitcher in the big leagues. He has a changeup that averages 89 mph and earns a swing and a miss 25% of the time Reyes throws it. He’s far from the perfect pitcher, of course, and continues to struggle with command — both with the fastball and his offspeed offerings. The problems Reyes experienced with control in the minors — where he recorded at least a 10% walk rate at every stop — have carried over to the majors, where’s he’s produced a 13% mark so far this season. He doesn’t always have great command of his pitches, but thanks to a lack of homers, his FIP is still a quite low 2.76 while a low BABIP and high left-on-base percentage has left his ERA at an unsustainably low 1.03 on the season.

As for season-saving, let’s take a look at the Cardinals’ playoff odds since the beginning of the season.

chart-21

If a graph could encapsulate a team’s baseball season, this one does it pretty well. The Cardinals’ divisional odds haven’t been above 7% since the end of April so what’s represented here essentially represents the Cardinals’ shot at a wild card. The team hasn’t ever been entirely out of it, although things have looked pretty dicey a few times. At no time has the club been in a comfortable position, either. Alex Reyes has pitched in just 10 Cardinals’ games. Below represents Reyes’ WPA for each of those games, as well as the change in playoff odds during games Reyes has pitched.

Alex Reyes WPA and Cardinals Playoff Odds
Date Opp GS WPA POFF ODDS Change
2016-09-18 @SFG 1 +0.38 +9.8
2016-09-13 CHC 0 +0.30 +5.6
2016-09-07 @PIT 0 -0.04 -6.3
2016-09-02 @CIN 1 +0.04 -5.3
2016-08-27 OAK 1 +0.21 -5.9
2016-08-23 NYM 0 +0.00 -5.8
2016-08-19 @PHI 0 +0.19 +7.7
2016-08-16 @HOU 0 +0.11 +7.0
2016-08-13 @CHC 0 +0.16 +6.4
2016-08-09 CIN 0 +0.01 -7.1
TOTAL 3 +1.35 +6.1

Reyes, who just turned 22 a month ago, ranks 20th among all pitchers since the All-Star break with the 1.35 WPA despite not pitching in a game until the second week in August. He’s one of just seven pitchers with more than 0.6 WPA in both August and September (Chris Devenski, Kevin Gausman, Jon Lester, Tanner Roark, Max Scherzer, and Masahiro Tanaka are the others). His .135 WPA per appearance is higher than any reliever in baseball and eighth in the majors in the second half behind only starters with double the amount of innings.

That +6.1-point change in St. Louis’s playoff odds figure might seem insignificant, as Reyes has appeared in as many losses as victories for the Cardinals this season. If you take away that first garbage-time appearance, the Cardinals playoff odds have increased by 13.2 points during games Reyes made an appearance, however, and decreased by 8.8 points in the games he hasn’t appeared, through his last appearance on Sunday. As WPA shows, Reyes has played a significant role in the games during which he has appeared. Of the five games the Cardinals eventually lost, he was a net positive in four of them — and helped them despite a loss in his start against the Oakland A’s. Five times, Reyes increased the Cardinals chances of winning by at least 10% in a game the Cardinals went on to win and saw the team’s playoff odds increase by more than five points — twice against the best team in baseball, and once versus the team against which the Cardinals are directly competing for a Wild Card spot. His last two performances seem to be the most important.

On September 13, the Cardinals had followed a disappointing home split with the Milwaukee Brewers with a loss to the Chicago Cubs in the series opener. Jaime Garcia was starting the game and a loss would have put the Cardinals two games behind the San Francisco Giants and a game and a half behind the New York Mets for the Wild Card. Garcia gave up a leadoff homer in the first and then began the second by allowing a walk and a double that scored a second run. Five batters later, Kris Bryant came to the plate with two outs and the bases loaded. Reyes, who has been known to walk his share of hitters and had not pitched in a game in six days, was called upon to keep the Cardinals in the game.

The first pitch was a 96 mph fastball in the zone on which Bryant whiffed. The second pitch was an 87 mph change over the middle of the plate that Bryant fouled off. After a fastball missed inside, Reyes threw another fastball, just off the top of the zone.

Reyes would pitch four more innings that game and wasn’t incredibly sharp, walking six while striking out four and only allowing a single base hit. However, when Matt Bowman and Kevin Siegrist came on to hold and save a 4-2 lead that had been achieved while Reyes was on the mound, they never pitched in a higher leverage situation than the one Reyes faced back in the second inning.

Even more than the fastball, it’s probably the curveball for which Reyes received notoriety as a prospect — and for good reason, as the pitch can be devastating. As noted above, it gets more vertical drop than any other curve in the majors. If it can be thrown for strikes or get hitters to chase, the pitch will be very useful for Reyes. Thus far, neither has happened. He’s thrown the pitch 53 times, but it has been a ball more than half the time while generating only six swings, per Brooks Baseball. This chart, from Baseball Savant, shows how Reyes’ curveball is all over the map.

alex-reyes

Of Reyes’ 40 strikeouts, just one has come on the curve, this pitch to Billy Hamilton.

In their series last week against the Giants, the Cardinals dropped the first two games, pushing them three games behind the Giants in the Wild Card. After a comeback against the Giants’ floundering bullpen on Saturday, the Cardinals’ season was breathing a little, but a loss to the Giants would have put them three games back with just 13 to go. Reyes pitched seven innings efficiently, recording just 84 pitches and striking out six. Having a fastball that regularly registers in the upper 90s is going to help any pitcher, but none of his six strikeouts came on that pitch. Four strikeouts were generated on the change, with two additional Ks coming on sliders to Hunter Pence (a pitch he had thrown just four times in the majors and all coming in his previous appearance against the Cubs, per Brooks Baseball).

He threw his change right over the plate to get a strikeout looking twice, including here against Brandon Belt.

He also threw it out of the zone to get batters to chase, like against Angel Pagan.

Of Reyes’ 40 strikeouts, 22 have come on the change. While the pitch is probably his most reliable at the moment, it’s quite possible it won’t remain that way. Reyes is still developing, having recently introduced a slider and sinker into his major-league repertoire, and while the curve has incredible break, he hasn’t thrown the pitch for strikes (or at least closer to the zone) often enough to use it effectively. For now, the curve likely only has value if he can find his way to favorable counts. If he gets ahead, he’ll have more opportunities to throw it — and hitters seem to have little idea how to handle the pitch, taking it whether it’s a ball or a strike.

Alex Reyes came up to help a bullpen that saw Trevor Rosenthal dealing with ineffectiveness, Kevin Siegrist struggling with the effects of mono, Jonathan Broxton simply struggling, and Matt Bowman wearing down in his first big-league season. When Reyes was called up, the Cardinals had essentially one reliable right-handed reliever in Seung Hwan Oh. Oh has been great closing down games, but Reyes helped bridge the gap by providing important innings as the Cardinals starters outside of Carlos Martinez also struggled. Luke Weaver, another impressive rookie for the Cardinals, has helped offset the loss of Michael Wacha and his contributions should not go unnoticed, but the versatility Reyes has shown has been vitally important to a team needing help in multiple areas on the pitching staff. Reyes has been setup man. He has closed in extra innings. He has been the piggybacked long reliever to Luke Weaver, Mike Leake, and Jaime Garcia in his appearances, keeping the Cardinals in games by ensuring that the Cardinals don’t have to leave a starter in too long — nearly essential for a club whose every game is a high-leverage one.

With Adam Wainwright’s inconsistent performance, Reyes might find himself as the Cardinals’ second-best starter with less than two weeks to go before the playoffs. A 50-game minor-league suspension for marijuana use might have hindered his development a bit, but he pitched in extended spring training and no innings limits are necessary for Reyes should he be needed in the playoffs. Saying that Reyes saved the season might be a bit strong, but in a season where one or two games will make the difference, Reyes’ emergence both in quality and in role should not be diminished.

We hoped you liked reading Alex Reyes Might Have Saved the Cardinals’ Season by Craig Edwards!

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Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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By bWAR, Wainwright has 1.0 WAR as a pitcher and 0.8 WAR as a hitter.