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Alex Reyes and Breaking Balls

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San Diego Padres v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

Alex Reyes made a few adjustments in 2021. The flamethrower actually decreased his fastball velocity from 97.5 mph in 2020 to 96.6 mph last season. He also continued to change the shape of his slider.

The decreased fastball velocity is not worrying because 96.6 mph is still a well above average velocity and the decrease is likely a result of the mechanical changes that Reyes made in an effort to keep his arm healthy.

The new shape of his slider has turned his slider into a devastating pitch. In 2018, Reyes slider dropped 40.3 inches and had only 4.4 inches of horizontal movement. The pitch had nearly the same movement in 2019. Things changed in 2020, though. Reyes’ slider lost some vertical movement as it only dropped 36.1 inches while the horizontal movement increased to 6.8 inches.

In 2021, the shape of Reyes’ slider was completely different than the shape of the pitch when he first reached the majors. The pitch actually gained movement in both directions from 2020, dropping 36.8 inches (7% more than average), and moving 8.2 inches in the horizontal direction (92% more than average). This slider not only has well above average movement, but it is also thrown at a well above average velocity (86.4 mph). No wonder the pitch was devastating to hitters. They batted just .089 against the pitch with a .195 wOBA. Reyes’ slider also generated a 55.8% whiff rate. The pitch was much better in 2021 than it was in 2020, although 2020 was a small sample size. Still, it is easy to believe that these improvements are real and not just coincidence given the increased movement on the pitch and its elite spin rate (2588). Reyes’ slider is truly one of the best sliders, if not the best, on the St. Louis Cardinals staff.

The changed shape of Reyes’ slider has differentiated it from the 27-year-old’s curveball, which is another pitch with elite movement and spin. Where Reyes’ slider excels is with uncommon horizontal movement. Where Reyes’ curveball excels is with above average vertical movement. The pitch drops 63.8 inches, which is 2.8 inches more than in 2020 and 20% more drop than average. The pitch has above average horizontal movement too, but its depth really sets it apart from other curveballs.

The pitch is also exactly seven miles per hour slower than Reyes’ slider, which makes it the only pitch to average under 80 mph. This gives it a great opportunity to be a change of pace pitch since everything else is Reyes’ arsenal is thrown over 85 mph.

The pitch also had a 50% whiff rate and an 88th percentile spin rate (2811 rpm). This sounds like a great pitch, but the catch is that it was his least used pitch in 2021. The right-hander threw them just 8.4% of the time, and he primarily threw them to left-handers as 83 of his 105 curveballs were thrown against lefties.

The results against Reyes’ curveball left a lot to be desired, but it is important to put those results in context. A .471 wOBA and .341 xwOBA are high, but Reyes only surrendered three hits against the pitch. Two were singles and one cleared the fence. The home run drags his numbers down, and with a larger sample size, it is more than likely that the results against his curveball would look much better.

The next step for Reyes is throwing more curveballs. The pitch has amazing depth and above average movement in both directions, generates whiffs, and provides a speed change from all of his other harder offerings. This pitch could be very effective if it was thrown more. Reyes will need a third pitch if he enters the rotation (which the Cardinals are disccusing) and even if he does not enter the rotation, his curveball should become more prominent, perhaps at the expense of his sinker.

Reyes’ curveball is a weapon, but it is not being fully utilized. Perhaps he does not feel comfortable throwing it or he struggles to keep it in the zone; but regardless, it is a pitch that should be used more. My guess is that Reyes may not feel like he has full control of the pitch since he rarely threw it when he was behind in the count. In fact, he rarely threw them in two or three ball counts. He was able to use the pitch early in the count, 0-0, 0-1, 1-1, and he also used it in two strike counts, 0-2, 1-2, 2-2. However, he rarely threw curveballs when the count was full. This adds to my theory that he does not feel comfortable throwing the pitch for a strike when he has too. Rather, it seems that he prefers to throw the pitch in pitcher’s counts when he can afford to miss the zone.

Whatever the reason is, Reyes should throw more curveballs in 2022. It could rival his slider and give him two really good breaking balls to go with a dynamic ‘rising’ fastball. This would be a difficult arsenal for opposing hitters to overcome as his two breaking balls would provide different speeds and different looks when a hitter already has to catch up to a nearly 97 mph fastball.

Control is the first thing that Reyes has to worry about, but improving his control could help him throw this pitch more, especially if he doesn’t trust his ability to throw the pitch in the zone when needed. Not only would control make him a better pitcher, and a possible starter, it could also unlock another breaking ball and give him another weapon with which he can make hitters look foolish. 8.4% is not enough of Reyes’ arsenal for his curveball. That number should increase to at least 15% or even more if he becomes more comfortable with the pitch. It should go from being a tertiary weapon against lefties to a go-to swing-and-miss offering against all hitters.