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Putting Alex Reyes’s (theoretical) 2017 into historical perspective

So (if) it turns out ZiPS was correct, the 2017 of the Cardinals’ top prospect is (going to be) something to behold.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Note: I, John Fleming of January 25, 2017, have gone forward in time to November 24, 2017 and have retrieved the post I wrote on that day. And yes, I recognize that the space-time continuum ramifications of this action are immeasurable, and if I’m going to wreak such havoc I should probably save it for something of more existential importance than a VEB post. Also, probably should’ve sneaked a peak at who won the World Series or the Super Bowl or the NBA Finals or The Bachelor or something. Oh well.

However, it turns out Alex Reyes’s 2017 season exactly, on the dot, matched the projections made by Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS system. Here is what I wrote about it.

After several years of hype surrounding his extraordinarily high upside, in 2016, Alex Reyes made his Major League Baseball debut, and the results were sparkling. Before his 22nd birthday, the fireballer allowed just one run in 14 innings while striking out 17 batters. His control left a little something to be desired, but even if one assumed his 0.64 ERA was a sequencing-aided fluke, his 2.43 fielding-independent ERA was indicative of a star in the making.

By the end of 2016, Reyes accumulated 46 total innings with a 1.57 ERA and 2.67 FIP. It was impressive stuff, indeed, but it was a small sample size, seven of his 12 appearances were in relief, he still averaged a walk every two innings, etc.—the causes for concern were all there.

While entering 2017, fans would be understood to be concerned that Alex Reyes might go through a sophomore slump (not literally, in terms of rookie eligibility, but in spirit). He was, after all, entering his age-22 season, and all pitching, particularly young pitching, is volatile.

However, Reyes was frequently the lights-out, dynamic performer about which Cardinals fans had been dreaming. His 25 appearances were mostly spent in the Cardinals’ rotation, making 20 starts and accumulating 121 13 innings on the season. While his 11.9% walk rate was, to say the least, sub-optimal, it was more than offset by his 26.4% strikeout rate.

Only nine pitchers in MLB history had strikeout rates higher than Reyes’s in their age-22 season or younger while throwing as many innings. The nine are a somewhat mixed bag: the only two examples from this decade were Jose Fernandez and Noah Syndergaard, while the three from the decade prior include the solid if somewhat unexciting Scott Kazmir (he was an exciting pitcher when he first came on the scene for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, but fell off considerably after he went to the Angels, a tenure which lasted parts of three seasons which I have somehow managed to completely block from my memory), the very good until injuries took their toll Cubs phenom Mark Prior, and Oliver Perez, who had exactly one good season as a starter before eventually settling in as an adequate relief pitcher.

Reyes tied with 2009 Clayton Kershaw and 2000 Rick Ankiel in strikeout percentage, which means by definition that Reyes has a 50/50 chance of becoming the consensus best pitcher in baseball (and even if that doesn’t happen, Reyes will emerge as a serviceable fourth-outfielder-ish player in 2024, which is a decent consolation prize). The logic is sound here, folks.

But while the strikeouts are the most obvious thing about Reyes’s 2017, his earned-run average at such a young age is nothing about which to scoff, either. While it lacks the historic panache of the many batters which he embarrassed in 2017, his 94 ERA- (indicating that, by run suppression, Reyes was 6% better than league average) was among the best for young Cardinals pitchers.

Just three Cardinals rookie pitchers with 120 or more innings had managed an ERA- of 94 or better this century before Reyes: the aforementioned Rick Ankiel in 2000 (76), Jaime Garcia in 2010 (69), and Shelby Miller in 2013 (84, and given that Miller’s FIP- of 99 trailed Reyes’s of 93, one could argue depending on statistical philosophy that Reyes had the better season on a rate basis).

Evaluating Reyes not by his rookie status but by his age is arguably a harsher standard—pitchers who are more or less full-time members of starting rotations by the age of 22 are generally the best of the best in terms of prospect pedigree, and not journeymen who just kind of stumbled into an MLB roster spot. But of the (now) 35 seasons in Cardinals history in which a pitcher threw 120+ innings in his age-22 season or lower (Reyes turned 23 in August, but by MLB standards, it still classifies as his age-22 season), Reyes’s 2017 is slightly better than the median.

Nine such seasons have occurred since World War II, though admittedly, the long-term results for the pitchers have been a somewhat mixed bag: Ankiel and Miller, along with Cloyd Boyer, Ray Sadecki, Larry Jaster, John Urrea, Dave LaPoint, Joe Magrane, and Matt Morris.

The wildly different career arcs of these pitchers should be a solid warning to not get too excited about Alex Reyes’s inevitable place in Cooperstown. But this doesn’t mean that you would be wrong to diminish the dominance of the 22 year-old version of Alex Reyes, considering the excitement it brought Cardinals fans throughout the 2017 season.