One of my strongest beliefs as a prospect/minor league writer is that there is far too much absolutism in most discussions of prospects in the online community. Part of the reason for this is simply a matter of demand–as you read about a minor league player (or, really, any player) at a place like FanGraphs or RotoGraphs, you’re likely interested in some sort of bottom line about how good the player is and might be. As such, there is a lot of pressure on the arbiters of the players to come up with a concrete answer–to make an actual prediction of their futures. In reality, though, prospecting is all about shades of gray, particularly in the low minors, which are my main focus. Just about every player in full-season ball has something going for them, but likewise, almost every player below Double-A has several aspects which need refinement before he has a chance at big league success. Predicting the eradication of those problems and the amount to which the strengths are realized is largely an exercise in probability, not one of guessing “good,” “bad,” or “okay” and clinging to it…to say nothing of the factors of injuries, regression, and the like. Any glance at a top prospect list from five years ago, regardless of the authors or their credibility, should drive this point home soundly–many of the top players go on to struggle, whereas several off the list entirely go on to have excellent careers.
For all of my relativistic outlook, though, occasionally I run into a player who’s just so impressive that my mind can’t help but jump directly to concrete thoughts of stardom. Of the couple hundred pitchers I saw in person last year, nobody evoked those thoughts more strongly than Cardinals pitching prospect Alex Reyes.
The fact that it was Reyes who blew me away so thoroughly is in itself quite fascinating. Obviously, the element of certainty correlates with distance from the majors–it’s a lot easier to make a concrete prediction of a 24-year-old Triple-A player’s future than, say, an 18-year-old in Rookie ball…which is exactly what Reyes was in 2013.
Now, it’s common knowledge that the Rookie leagues, even “Advanced-Rookie” ones like the Appalachian League, are filled with largely raw players. Without making the trip to the oft-remote locations of Appalachian League and/or Pioneer League ballparks, though, one may not fully grasp the inherent differences in the level of talent and polish in these players versus those in, say, Low-A ball.
But there are differences–stark ones, at that. First, as I said earlier, just about every player–pitchers, of course, included–in full-season ball has some reasonably solid characteristic. Just about every non-sidearm pitcher in full-season ball is capable of touching 90 mph, and the few that aren’t either have some other outstanding characteristic (deception, command, or offspeed stuff) or are clinging to a back-end roster spot. Pitchers who work in the low-to-mid-90s with a good offspeed pitch, sometimes even two, aren’t all that rare at the Low-A level. In the Appalachian League, on the other hand, seeing a “91” or “92” on a radar gun often causes me to breathe a sigh of relief, particularly when it comes to middle relievers. Many of the hurlers who populate the back halves of Appalachian League pitching staffs are pretty readily identified as filler players unlikely to advance much higher–they lack velocity and don’t have anything else that makes up for it.
Another way to look at the differences between the pitchers of the SAL and the Appy (and thus, their levels) is to compare the skills of some of the so-called top prospects. Here’s a listing of some of the top-ranked hurlers I saw in the SAL and a brief description of their arsenals:
Eddie Butler: 92-97 mph moving fastball, solid slider and change, occasional curve
Lucas Sims: 90-93 mph fastball, touching 95, good curve, decent change
Miguel Almonte: 93-94 mph fastball, plus changeup, playable curve
C.J. Edwards: 88-93 mph fastball, touching 95, good curve, decent change
Rafael De Paula: 88-94 mph moving fastball, plus slider, solid change
Compare that to some of the top-ranked Appalachian League pitchers:
Edwin Diaz: 90-94 mph moving fastball, touching 95, poor slider and change
Chase DeJong: 87-93 mph fastball, solid curve, poor change
Alberto Tirado: 91-94 mph fastball, solid slider and change
Jairo Labourt: 89-92 mph fastball, solid slider, playable change
Yorman Landa: 89-93 mph fastball, touching 94, okay curve, not much of a change
In general, the top SAL arms have both average-or-better velocity and either two solid offspeed pitches or one plus one, whereas in the Appy, either of these attributes can lead to success. Diaz ran up a 1.43 ERA without any semblance of even average offspeed stuff. DeJong put up a 1.90 FIP despite average velocity and a third pitch in need of work. Nick Lomascolo struck out 31.9% of the Appy League batters he faced, but his fastball doesn’t even touch 90 mph, his breaking pitch is slurvy, and his changeup isn’t particularly special–you don’t see many pitchers make Low-A rosters with that arsenal, let alone strike out a third of their opponents.
So, when amidst the sea of one-pitch pitchers, deception artists with no stuff, mechanical messes, and fringy senior signs, there emerges an Appalachian League pitcher who already has several very real skills, it’s easy to take notice. And boy, do they jump out in this video of Alex Reyes:
I want to point out a few specifics here:
1.) Reyes worked 91-94 mph, touching 95, throughout this outing.
The above pitch is 95 mph. That, of course, says quite a bit in itself. Reyes turned 19 on August 29, so here he is reaching 95 mph six weeks before his nineteenth birthday. That’s pretty special velocity.
Just as importantly, this pitch came in the fourth inning of the outing, right after another 95-mph fastball. Other than those two offerings, Reyes worked at 91-94 mph for the entirety of his five-inning outing, already showing the ability to hold above-average velocity through a start. Many pitchers in the Appy League, and at higher levels as well, don’t show this sort of stamina–Reyes already has it. Presumably, he should get stronger as time passes, so holding good velocity through his starts shouldn’t ever be an issue for him, barring significant injuries or other regression that’s difficult to see coming. Young and projectable, he certainly could pick up even more velocity in the future.
Low-minors hitters tend to chase high heaters, and Reyes’ is plenty good enough to be effective when he climbs the ladder like this. His fastball is not a pitch that has massive life, but he can add some cut or running action at times when he needs it. Despite his fearlessness of throwing high heat, he maintained a reasonable groundball rate this year–MLBFarm claims that 69 of the 153 balls in play off him (45.1%) were grounders, whereas Minor League Central lists him at a 41.2% rate.
Overall, Reyes’ fastball may not have the consistent mid-90s velocity and/or massive life to make it a lights-out pitch, but it will be an above-average offering at the very least, and the addition of a couple extra ticks (a legitimate possibility, although not necessarily one I’d take even odds on) would make it a devastating weapon.
2.) If Reyes’ curveball isn’t already plus, it’s on the verge of that designation.
Here’s where Reyes really separates himself. There really are four types of Appalachian League breaking pitches:
a.) Nondescript slurvy pitches.
b.) Big, slow curves in the mid-60s, upper-60s, or low-70s.
c.) Pitches in the normal velocity range for their pitch type but with below-average movement.
d.) Quality breaking pitches thrown by pitchers who typically have no other average-or-better offerings.
Indeed, pitches that fall outside of this category–legitimately good breaking stuff thrown by pitchers who have other quality weapons–are rare in the league, because pitchers who can pair a good breaker with something else effective generally don’t need time at the Advanced-Rookie level. Most of the few exceptions, like Reyes, are the teenage starting pitchers in their first full season of US professional baseball who are assigned to the short-season levels to get some innings under their belts in a less cutthroat environment–Alberto Tirado, Jairo Labourt, and German Marquez, to name a few.
But this is more than just an exception:
Just look at the two-plane action on the above pitch. I’d be willing to bet that if you had Reyes throw this in a Pitch F/X-captured stadium, it would have above-average movement for a major league curveball. And, unlike many of his Appy League cohorts, Reyes throws the pitch with enough power to make it more than just a Yu Darvish lollipop–it consistently arrives in the 73-76 mph range. That’s not really a “power curve,” by any stretch, but plenty of mid-70s curveballs have laid waste to MLB hitters, and again, Reyes may end up adding more velocity to the pitch as time progresses. Obviously, the pitch functions very effectively as something for hitters to chase as it runs off the plate:
Just like how pitchers who can throw stuff like this don’t stay moored in the short-season levels for long, batters who can lay off it don’t stay there long, either. And the hitters in the two preceding .gifs, Kristian Brito and Wilton Martinez, were T-2nd and 1st in the Appy League in homers, respectively, so it’s not like Reyes is just getting 23-year-old undrafted free agents out with the offering.
What makes the curveball truly special, though, is that Reyes doesn’t just use it as a chase pitch. Below, there’s a three-pitch sequence to Isaiah Yates:
Reyes certainly isn’t afraid to throw the pitch for strikes. And why would he be? Look at the action the pitch retains even when he’s throwing it to the arm side. A lot of breaking pitches tend to flatten and straighten out when thrown there, but Reyes’ curve still has big two-plane break. He’s willing to work both sides of the plate with the pitch (and his other offerings), making it all the more dangerous.
If you watch the video, you will notice a couple of hanging breaking balls–it’s not always this pretty. But every pitcher misses his spot at least occasionally, and for Reyes, being able to deliver knockout curves on over half of his attempts to throw the pitch is a tremendous achievement at this nascent stage of his development.
3.) His changeup exists.
I tend to overuse superlative language, particularly when talking about Alex Reyes. Superlatives are, however, ill-suited to describe Reyes’ changeup, so the tone of the upcoming section is a bit less gushing than those that surround it.
Still, though, this is a real, actual, legitimate pitch:
A lot of scouting reports of young, raw starting pitchers will have language like “He’s a one-pitch pitcher” or “He needs a changeup.” Most professional starting pitchers, though, at least have three pitchers–fastball, breaking ball, and change–it’s just that the changeup might come in so hard and flat that it’s impossible to distinguish without a radar gun. It takes quite the trained eye to pick out the difference between a 90 mph straight pitch and an 84 mph straight pitch, after all.
Reyes, however, throws a changeup that has neither of these issues. First, it arrives in the 82-84 mph range, 9-10 mph slower than his fastball and 8-9 faster than his curveball, creating a third distinct speed for batters to have to hang in against, especially lefties. Lefties did hit him around this year–.328/.386/.469, compared to .216/.326/.268 for righties–but that seems to be entirely a small-sample fluke, as Reyes struck out 16 of the 71 he faced, walked five, and allowed just one home run (LHBs posted a .426 BABIP against him). Second, it has movement–it fades a bit and has distinct sink.
It’s not an above-average offering like the fastball and curve, but it looks like a solid 4-grade pitch that flashes average. Given his youth and the greatness of the rest of his arsenal, this is just gravy.
4.) He has a great delivery.
Coincidentally, none of the .gifs in this article so far have actually featured Reyes pitching from the full windup. Here’s what that looks like:
I’m going to stop short of calling this an ideal motion, but it’s not too far from that. Reyes delivers his heat with ease, making good use of his lower half and without any major red flags. Further, he has a fairly high legkick that adds a bit of deception without compromising the cleanness of the motion. His posture occasionally gets a bit out of whack, but at his age, that’s a very minor concern.
Reyes did walk 11.1% of the batters he faced this year, and his command isn’t pristine at this point–a run through the video reveals a lot of wasted high fastballs, in particular. This delivery, however, should allow him to develop plus command in time. He’s got a good frame with room to fill out and definitely has a chance to shoulder big workloads down the line as well.
All told, Reyes is the rare low-minors prospect for whom I have a high comfort level in projecting excellence. He already has two above-average pitches and a third that isn’t far from average, his delivery is sound and should allow for those pitches to play up, and he’s got the projection, the aptitude and, most importantly, the time to round everything into a form several notches higher than his current one.
Expect Reyes to open 2014 with Low-A Peoria of the Midwest League and quickly ascend to the upper ranks of prospect lists. Even though he’ll be 19 for almost all of the upcoming season, don’t be surprised if he sees a further promotion before the end of the year due to his polish and the typical aggressiveness of the Cardinals organization with their best prospects. It may seem that Reyes is a wild card due to his inexperience and perceived distance from the majors, but don’t be fooled by that–he’s got a higher floor than a lot of higher-level pitchers while retaining a very high ceiling. Don’t hesitate to grab Reyes in even fairly shallow dynasty league formats, because chances are high that he’ll see a huge rise in his stock in the next six months.
Nathaniel Stoltz is a prospect writer for FanGraphs. A resident of Bowie, MD and University of Maryland graduate student, he frequently views prospects in the Carolina and South Atlantic Leagues. He can be followed on Twitter at @stoltz_baseball.