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The Changing Mechanics of Alex Reyes

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Breaking down the delivery of the Cards’ super prospect since he burst onto the scene.

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

Author’s Note: I was literally about 4/5 of the way through this post when the news of Reyes’s MRI and potential injury began percolating about. I finished the piece up without changing it in light of the new information, rather than move things around to fit a new narrative. Hopefully it stands on its own merits. Chalk up another one to both my incredibly shitty timing on things, and also to not having time to do this post Sunday morning as a System Sundays article. I could have looked like Cassandra. (Spoiler alert.) — Aaron

Hello, all, and happy Valentine’s Day. Hopefully you had a nice holiday, whether attached or unattached, and are ready to attack spring training news with renewed vigour.

I’m actually writing this on V-Day morning itself, hoping to get this done and in the can ahead of time so I’m not trying to rush and write it Wednesday morning. Anytime I try to do any kind of mechanical breakdown it always ends up extremely time-consuming, so I would like to get it done and out of the way ahead of time.

There has been an extraordinary amount written about Alex Reyes this offseason, from considerations of his potential place on the team, to musings about the quality of his repertoire, to meditations on his long-term place with the franchise in light of Carlos Martinez having both taken Reyes under his wing last year and also signing a contract extension which will likely make him the face of the Cardinal rotation for quite a while to come.

And really, it’s only right Reyes should be getting a whole lot of ink spilled about him, both digital and otherwise, considering how fascinating a prospect he is. He boasts one of the best fastballs in the game, a curve that at times will show a Zack Greinke-level speed differential from the heater (though the pitch is, admittedly, less consistent than I think most of us were hoping it would be by now), and a remarkably exciting changeup that gives him a third pitch deserving of at least a 60 grade on the 20-80 scale. With stuff best described as ‘pyrotechnic’ and a reasonably open shot at a rotation spot, Alex Reyes is bound to be heavily discussed in 2017.

One thing that has not been discussed that much yet, though, is the mechanical aspect of Alex Reyes’s game. I know I’ve mentioned here and there that I’m not a fan of Reyes’s delivery, but haven’t gotten around to really breaking it down. Ben Humphrey and I actually discussed Reyes’s delivery — specifically, the changes to it I’m going to talk about here today — off-air back when we were recording podcasts pretty regularly, and Reyes was just emerging as the monster pitching prospect he’s become over the last two years. I meant to write about it then, and just didn’t get around to it. Partially because, as I said, mechanical breakdowns are time-consuming, and partially because thanks to a former poster here all mechanical discussions come with a lot of unnecessary baggage, hostility, and dismissal of the points made based on the fact the info at the time was being delivered via personality disorder pretty much exclusively.

But anyhow, considering how important Reyes is going to be to the Cardinals in 2017, and how much hype there is around watching him pitch every fifth day, I wanted to actually sit down and get this written as soon as possible. Wanted to do it Sunday, but didn’t have time. So, you get a minor league-focused post on a Wednesday instead. I hope you don’t mind.

So how we’re going to start this off is with me saying that, in my opinion, Alex Reyes has very risky mechanics. I won’t say they’re ‘better’ or ‘worse’, because that’s somewhat subjective. If a pitcher changes his delivery to something that pushes him toward a higher risk of injury and surgery, you could say that’s worse from a health standpoint. However, if said pitcher was a marginal talent who was only going to kick around the fringes of the big leagues for a couple years, but those risky mechanics add some velocity and suddenly he’s locking down the eighth inning for a team and getting a Brett Cecil sort of deal, then that would suggest the mechanics were better from a performance standpoint. Personally, I err toward the side of guys staying healthy, doing what they do in less risky ways, because I believe there are way to be successful as a pitcher without relying entirely on power and velocity, but I also admit there is a barrier for entry, and for some guys the tradeoff may be entirely worth it.

It’s a spectrum, is what I’m saying, and while we unfortunately don’t have a great grasp yet on how much of a difference mechanics make, I tend to think modern pitching mechanics are very much the invisible elephant in the the room, with everyone looking elsewhere, trying to construct usage-pattern algorithms and lifetime work total tables, all the while ignoring the giant fact that pitchers throw differently than they used to. Maybe we should look seriously at whether the fact pitching deliveries so clearly look completely different than they did in the old days when guys threw ~300 innings a year and still managed 15 year careers could possibly have something to do with why so many hurlers are getting hurt now. (Allowing for survivorship bias, of course, meaning that in those old days pitchers who got hurt went to work fixing cars or selling insurance, rather than having Tommy John, rehabbing for twelve months, and coming back to the mound.) But for some reason, the mechanical question is not where most analysts go. Maybe because it’s harder to quantify with numbers, making it much fuzzier to work with.

Generalities aside, let’s look at Reyes specifically, shall we?

What we’re going to do first is hop into our patented Redbird time machine (it looks like the bullpen cart from Major League, only cooler because it’s Cardinal-themed), and go all the way back to the year 2013.

In 2013, the Cardinals had, by popular consensus, the best farm system in major league baseball. That was the year Shelby Miller sat at the top, having struck out almost 30% of the hitters he faced in his abbreviated (13+ innings), debut in September of 2012. Carlos Martinez had made it to Double A at just 20 years old, and had shown the sort of stuff we’ve all come to know and love. The pair were joined by Trevor Rosenthal, who had struck out 34% of hitters he faced as a starter at Triple A in 2012, and Michael Wacha, the lanky Texan who fell to the Cards in the 2012 draft and had immediately made himself look like an unimaginable bargain at 19. (Side note: Wacha’s High A stint in 2012 after being drafted is one for the ages. He appeared in four games, threw 8.0 innings, struck out 61.5% of the hitters he faced and walked slightly less than 4%. His FIP: -0.23. Yes, that’s a negative sign.)

The Redbirds were only one season removed from a World Series title, and they had the best farm system in the game. If you weren’t tired of hearing about The Cardinal Way in 2013, you probably just weren’t paying attention. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the skinny kid from the Dominican with the violent swing yet.

In that context, Alex Reyes was very much an afterthought. He was not a top ten prospect; he was not a top twenty prospect. He was a guy who showed up in the ‘others of note’ areas of prospect rankings, if even that. In fact, Reyes had not yet thrown a professional pitch, at least stateside. He was officially ‘signed’ in November of 2012 out of the Dominican; I say ‘signed’ because at the time there were accusations of the Cards stashing him in their academy over the previous year to keep other teams from seeing him. He was born and bred American, from New Jersey, and had moved to the Dominican to take advantage of a loophole in the drafting system. The Cards gave him nearly $1 million as a signing bonus, and just like that, the skinny kind with the glasses was a Redbird.

It was also reported at the time that his fastball sat mostly 91-93, touching 95, and he had an ungodly hammer curve in his back pocket that he struggled to locate. Which, of course, is not at all unexpected for an eighteen year old kid. So keep that in mind as we go forward.

Here’s Reyes throwing in his first pro season, working in the Appalachian League.

via Nathaniel Stoltz:

That was in July of 2013, and the best part is Mr. Stoltz (who I don’t think was working for FanGraphs yet, but may have been), narrating the speed of every pitch.

It’s also the longest you will ever see Reyes’s arm swing in the back of his delivery, and the highest you will see his leg kick. He’s a dynamic ball of energy, creating a ton of power with his lower body.

Also, here’s the best I could do screenshotting Reyes at the moment of footplant. As I’m sure most of you know, there’s an emerging body of research suggesting players who deviate from a vertical pitching arm forearm at the point when footplant occurs and the body starts to rotate have an elevated risk of injury. It’s not 100% accepted yet, but the best guesses we have as of now as to what a low-risk delivery is has the pitcher’s arm up perpendicular to the ground when the foot comes down. The further you deviate from that, the more the arm has to travel faster, and carry a heavier load, in order to try and ‘catch up’ to the body.

Admittedly, it’s a little blurry, and it’s only the best I could do freezing the video at the right moment after half a dozen or more attempts, but what we have here is very close to the moment Reyes’s foot comes down and his hips start to rotate. The arm is further back than I would like to see, and even then he showed the unfortunate habit of pointing the ball out toward center field, which forces an extra little bit of rotation. Still, this isn’t bad. You might want to tighten the arm swing up slightly, but not too much. You want this player to keep the freedom and energy of his delivery intact as he gets bigger and stronger. Pay attention also to the stride length; you won’t see Reyes getting out in front of the rubber as far later on, and one of the real downsides of a shorter stride is failure to get proper action on the curveball, as the natural action when you aren’t transferring forward properly is to cast the pitch and leave it up.

Okay, back in the time machine, everybody. Yes, that is real red pleather; thank you for noticing.

This time we’re fast-forwarding almost exactly one year, to July of 2014. We’ll skip all the background stuff this time, with the exception of saying Alex Reyes had jumped onto the prospect radar after his 2013 season. John Sickels put him #5 on the Cards’ list after a short-season performance; that should tell you what kind of impression Reyes’s stuff made in short order even then. He was still pitching in the mid-90s, with the curve flashing 65-70 and the change flashing 60. Reports of 97s on the gun had started to show up.

via In the Shadows of Wrigley:

The first thing to notice is that Reyes had filled out considerably by this point. That listed 175 weight was already a joke. It wasn’t all good weight, either; Reyes looked a little sloppy in his uniform at this point. Not shocking, again, for a nineteen year old to fluctuate in his weight as he fills out, but something that already would bear watching.

I’m not going to screenshot that, because I actually have a much better video for that. You can’t see the stuff, but you can see the delivery much better here, by way of a VEB commenter’s video. (Sorry I don’t remember exactly which commenter at this point.)

via Jason Payne:

This was also July of 2014, and we can see some real development in the delivery. Reyes is still aggressive with his lower body, pushing off strong and getting out in front of the rubber. The arm swing is definitely shorter than in 2013, and he no longer has quite so much spine tilt in his delivery. (i.e. he’s not leaning back so far as he was.) That lower arm slot due to a more vertical spine angle could very well be a hindrance to throwing the big waterfall curve Reyes initially showed up with; once he shortened his stride and was still working 34 the curveball was almost guaranteed to suffer, or at least change.

Here we are at footplant or footstrike, depending on which terminology you prefer:

As we can see, the arm is later now. Further from vertical, and with a more pronounced twist to point the ball toward center field. This is riskier. Now, he was still using his legs well here, the leg kick was still aggressive and high, so he was still generating a ton of power with his lower body. This is less ideal than the 2013 version, in terms of health, but he was throwing harder and still had some real positives in the delivery.

Back into the time machine, everybody. No, that is not a cup holder. You should have gone while we were still in 2014.

Forward we go, to late 2015. The video was uploaded in October of 2015; it’s from the Arizona Fall League, as evinced by the mismatched uniforms of the battery. At this point, Reyes was working 96-97 with his fastball, topping out in triple digits, and his changeup had passed his curve as his best secondary pitch. He was also just a matter of days away from having a marijuana suspension handed down, to put the timeframe into context.

via Baseball America:

Here we have a very different delivery than we started off with. The leg kick used to be high and aggressive; now Reyes barely gets his knee above his waist. The stride is much shorter, as well. This is a pitcher no longer generating much power with his lower body; this is a pitcher who has moved to a far less athletic, aggressive delivery, most likely in an attempt to get under control. It’s a natural impulse for both pitcher and coach; when you have a guy struggling to repeat his mechanics you try and make the mechanics shorter, quieter, and simpler. The problem? The power still has to come from somewhere.

Here’s the screenshot from this version of Reyes’s delivery at footplant; it’s blurry again, so apologies, but you can see the angle of the arm, I think, well enough.

The arm is now almost parallel to the ground, rather than perpendicular. How does a player doing less work with his legs lead to greater power and velocity? By delaying the arm and forcing it to catch up as he rotates his hips and torso. I think Reyes’s ever-increasing velocity was a result of his arm getting later and later, which is both a positive (he throws 100 now!), and a negative. Again, I don’t want to say one is better and one is worse; my own opinion is that the less risky delivery is better, but really, one could make the case the performance boost might be worth the elevated risk. So we have increasing risk as time goes on, I believe, rather than a delivery which is simply getting ‘worse’.

So from 2013 to 2015, we’ve seen Reyes’s delivery get less and less athletic, and less powerful, even as his velocity climbed. Part of the velocity gain, of course, is the fact he got bigger and stronger over those two years, but there’s also a noticeable change in how he was delivering the ball to the plate. The power had to come from somewhere, and if the body and legs are doing less, the arm has to do more.

Finally, we’ll all jump back into the time machine for our last trip forward. We’re going forward to the 24th of September, 2016, which isn’t all that long ago. Not that long ago in terms of actual time, and even less in terms of baseball time, which took a break at the end of October and is only now beginning to run again. I don’t need to show you a video this time, although I could if I wanted.

Actually, let’s do a video again anyway, just because it’s fun watching Alex Reyes make fools look foolish.

via MLB:

There. Wasn’t that fun? Of course it was. Fools looking foolish, clip courtesy Alex M.F. Reyes.

I’m not even going to screenshot that video, though. I don’t need to. Thanks to the miracles of photography, all you have to do to see what Reyes’s delivery looked like on the 24th of September last year (specifically, how it looked at the point that seems to matter most), is scroll back up over this now very long post to the picture at the top.

You don’t want to scroll up? Okay, fine. I’ll put it in here as well.

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

The foot is down, the hips have begun rotating, and that’s where his arm is now. That’s about as high-risk a delivery as I can imagine.

In ranking and writing about Reyes the last couple years as part of the big VEB prospects list, I’ve made reference to the fact I’m maybe a little lower on Reyes than many others, even though I can’t really justify placing him anywhere but in the number one spot on the list. Part of that is what I see as iffy body control, leading to many of his issues with command; Reyes simply isn’t the kind of athlete that, say, Carlos Martinez is. Or Adam Wainwright, for that matter, if you want a bigger, more physical pitcher.

Another, perhaps even bigger, reason for my misgivings regarding Reyes is what I’ve covered here today. As his status and performance has increased, I’ve actually liked what I see from him less and less, at least in terms of mechanically protecting his arm. The stuff is undeniable, as is the excitement. But even as I’ve tried to keep mechanical wonkery out of the writeups to keep from going too far down that road, I can’t lie and say much of my caution in jumping fully aboard the Reyes train comes from the fact I’m scared for his arm.

Final Author’s Note: Again, I tried to keep what I found out partway through writing this piece out of it as much as possible, but I don’t know if I was entirely successful. So here I am at a little before four a.m. on Wednesday adding a postscript to say if you want to call me full of shit and say I’m only writing this because of the news that came out yesterday, rather than producing honest analysis, then that’s okay. I can only stand on my reputation, and hopefully this piece can be taken in the spirit — and the context — in which I started it.

And also to say that if the news proves to be what we fear it is, and Reyes does, in fact, have to go under the knife, that is a bummer of proportions I was not expecting to have to deal with the first real day of spring training. The last two offseasons have been immensely frustrating to be a Cardinal fan, for various reasons, but looking forward to the top pitching prospect in the game taking the mound for El Birdos in 2017 was a hell of a consolation prize. If that is indeed now gone, it just doesn’t seem fair. — A