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St. Louis Cardinals: Does Alex Reyes Have A Command Problem?

Alex Reyes St. Louis Cardinals

There has been chatter all offseason about whether Alex Reyes should start 2017 in the rotation. Just this week, GM John Mozeliak indicated that Reyes is not a lock for the 2017 rotation.

John Mozeliak’s confusion at why fans have Reyes in the rotation makes no sense. Back in October, he was quoted saying “I would say he probably earned a spot in the rotation.” Maybe I’m misinterpreting “Mospeak,” but it looks to me that Mozeliak also penciled Reyes in as a starter.

My guess? He’s blocked all memories from October 7th to November 2nd. I don’t blame him.

Anyways, the argument for including Alex Reyes in the rotation come opening day is simple. He might have the most raw talent on the staff. He dominated in his debut last season, posting a 1.57 ERA and 10.17 strikeouts per nine. In the five games he started, he averaged just under 6 innings and 100 pitches.

The argument against Reyes beginning the year in the MLB rotation has two angles. First, he has never thrown more than 111.1 professional innings in a season, a total he reached last year. Some contend that counting the innings he received in extended spring training during his suspension might bring that total closer to 150 innings. However, those innings did not have the same intensity as regular season innings.

The second angle, and the one relevant to my discussion today, is that Alex Reyes walk rate was too high to sustainably succeed as an MLB starter over a larger sample size. Last season, Reyes covered up for a 12.2% walk rate with a 87.9% strand rate (LOB%). Compare that with his LOB% in the minors, which ranged from 66.9% to 75.9%, and it’s clear that Reyes is a candidate for major regression.

The hope is that Reyes can improve his command and cut down his walk rate next season.  The reality is that he hasn’t made any progress in the past regarding his walk rate. His 11.5% BB% last year across AAA and the MLB was hardy different than his 11.1% in rookie ball. He has never posted a single digit walk rate in any season. In fact, his 11.1% rate back in 2013 is the best of his career.

Most fans, including myself, have naturally assumed that Reyes has never needed to harness his command. Instead, I assume, he’s simply gotten by on overpowering stuff, especially his fastball. As it turns out, he actually commands his fastball fairly well. His curveball is a different story.

Using data available at FanGraphs, I calculated the average Strike%, Ball%, and pitches per batter faced for 73 qualified starting pitchers last season, and compared them to Alex Reyes.

St. Louis Cardinals Alex Reyes

While the differences seem small, Alex Reyes was nearly two standard deviations worse in each category. His Pitches/BF would have ranked second to last among this sample. Consequently, his walk rate was just over two standard deviations worse than the average among these pitchers.

A look at plate discipline statistics tells a slightly different story. The following table shows the percentage of pitches inside or outside the zone which a hitter swung at (Z-Swing% and O-Swing%), as well as the percentage of pitches thrown within the strike zone (Zone%).

St. Louis Cardinals Alex Reyes

Alex Reyes keeps his pitches in the strike zone about 1% less than average. This difference, though, is only 0.38 standard deviations worse than the mean. Essentially, Alex Reyes is average at throwing pitches that should be strikes.

On the other hand, Alex Reyes is worse than average at inducing hitters to swing at pitches outside the strike zone. His O-Swing% is 3.35% worse than the average, which accounts for a large part of the difference between his Strike% and the average among qualified pitchers.

An obvious question follows: given Alex Reyes raw stuff, how is he so much worse than average at fooling hitters into swinging at pitches outside the zone?

His poor curveball location is likely the answer. His curve had an extremely low O-Swing% of 13.1% in 2016. For comparison’s sake, Carlos Martinez lowest O-Swing% against his curveball is 30.8%, also last year.

So, for as good as Reyes curveball sometimes looked, it rarely tempted hitters to chase. A look at his curveball location heatmap courtesy of Baseball Savant reveals why:

St. Louis Cardinals Alex Reyes

Alex Reyes curveball hardly ever threatened the strike zone. The core extends well off the right edge of the plate. Most professional hitters recognize a pitch heading that far outside as a ball whether the pitcher throws 100 MPH or not.

Next, limiting the search to include only fastballs, it becomes clear that fastball command is not a major problem for Alex Reyes:

St. Louis Cardinals Alex Reyes

Generally, Reyes kept his fastball high and near the middle of the plate. His Zone% on fastballs comes in at 50.4%, which is just slightly below Carlos Martinez fastball Zone% in 2015. It appears that Reyes has harnessed his fastball, or at worst is well on his way there.

There’s two possible takeaways from this look at Alex Reyes. On one hand, he needs to improve his curveball command for it to be a consistent out pitch next year. As of now, it looks like a waste pitch most of the time. It simply puts Reyes in a less advantageous position when hitters take it for a ball.

On the other hand, though, Reyes appears to have his fastball under control and gets it over for a strike with surprising consistency. If he wastes a pitch by throwing a curveball in the dirt, then he at least changes the hitter’s eye level to set up a fastball high and over the plate.

Alex Reyes role to start 2017 will likely be the result of his (and others) performance in Spring Training. If Reyes starts showing a curve with better command, I’d write his name in the rotation with pen.

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