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What should Alex Reyes’ role be?

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Should he stay closer, or move to a different role?

St Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

Yesterday, the Cardinals looked primed to take 3 out of 4 to the Pirates when Alex Reyes blew a two-run lead in the 9th inning. He walked two batters and allowed a two-run home run. It was in theory a crushing loss. I mean it was a crushing loss to the Cardinals players and Cardinals organization. I feel somehow removed from caring too much at this point and I reacted with a shrug, much like I did to the meltdown on Thursday.

Reyes blown save yesterday does allow me to take issue with an article that I’ve thought about ever since, that I wish I could blame for jinxing Alex Reyes, but well, I understand something like what’s happened was always coming. But this article immediately annoyed me, and it just so happened to coincide with Alex Reyes pitching badly since. So every time Alex Reyes pitches poorly, I think about that article.

Still though, that walk rate is an issue, but what I want to do here is assuage some of the concerns and help reinforce a point made by Baseball Prospectus’ Jonathan Judge on Twitter just last week: that often a walk or hit-by-pitch is the next best outcome after a strikeout (compared to a ball in play). He noted that while Reyes is toeing the proverbial walk rate line, he has the tools to make that extreme profile work, especially with his ability to generate groundballs with his sinker.

I’m going to take the controversial stance here and say a walk or hit by pitch is NOT the next best thing after a strikeout. Alex Reyes has a .237 BABIP against. It was lower at the time of the article I’m sure. If you include homers, that’s about a 1 in 5 chance that a ball in play will get on base. How the hell is that not better than a walk? And typically, the types of pitchers he’s referring to will have low BABIPs against, at least the successful ones.

So yeah every single time Alex Reyes has walked a batter in the 2nd half who has ended up scoring, my mind goes back to that article and I get annoyed all over again. There is just about no universe where I’m willing to accept that a walk or HBP is what I want my closer to do if he’s not striking out the batter. And besides, Alex Reyes has a high strikeout rate but not like that high for a reliever. It’s 27.9%. I’d need at least like a 35% K rate to justify his walk rate as a good thing. He also doesn’t get that many groundballs, with a 37.5 GB%, negating his last point entirely.

It seems pretty clear that Alex Reyes should probably not be the closer anymore. I don’t want to talk about who his replacement would be. You can easily see any other reliever going poorly. Giovanny Gallegos has struggled in the 2nd half. Genesis Cabrera does exactly what Alex Reyes does, except a little better. Luis Garcia has six career saves and has been a mediocre reliever for his entire career (except for one season four years ago) and and 20 great innings does not necessarily remove the risk that the first part of this sentence brings. I don’t think anyone else is a serious contender.

No, what I want to discuss is maybe to change Reyes’ role. The original plan for Alex Reyes, in theory anyway, was for him to throw about 100 IP this season. He currently has 58 innings pitched on the season. Getting to the “original” goal is all but impossible this late in the season. However, you could make moves to get him closer to the goal than you would if you just kept him as a one-inning pitcher. Maybe 80 IP?

I am on record, many times in fact, as not believing Alex Reyes can move to starter next season. Too many walks. His stats do not in any way, shape or form translate to starting. I had similar issues with Carlos Martinez, where his stats were just not good enough to translate to being a good pitcher. Those concerns proved valid and I suspect Reyes will stay in the bullpen personally.

With all that said, I don’t think there’s any harm in preparing for him as a starter. He missed so many years to injury that it’s possible this season is just him shaking off the rust. Think of it like how pitchers typically struggle in their first year back from Tommy John only to return to “normal” the second year. I actually don’t know if that’s a real thing, but you get the idea. Yeah he pitched last year, but barely. The top 20 pitching prospect is still there, which means the potential is still there. There’s not much harm. Not like you’re losing a great reliever.

So September can act as a trial run of sorts, a little more valuable perhaps than Spring Training would be. You don’t actually need to start him. Just have him throw 2 innings, then maybe 3, then maybe 4. Or focus on pitch count. 40 pitches, 50 pitches, 60 pitches, however many innings you can pitch with that pitch count, do it. Just see how he looks as a man who has to pitch multiple innings and not as one who has to pitch one inning. He’ll be forced to adapt.

Either he pitches worse than expected, about what you’d expect, or surprisingly better under this new format. The first two mean he’s probably not a candidate for the rotation unless he pitches like a new guy in spring. Which would be my assumption right now anyway. If he remains in the bullpen as a mostly one-inning guy, I’m only going to pay lip service to him in the rotation.

But, and this is extremely unlikely, he suddenly has a bit better ability to find the zone for some reason - maybe not airing it all out will help. Then you can pay attention to him as a rotation candidate. I don’t think it’s likely, but there’s little risk. Whatever he would do in this role would hurt us less than him in the closer role at the moment.

The main value of this is that it can tell us a basic, necessary fact: how effective is Reyes when he throws 50+ pitches? That seems like a very useful thing to know going into next season. If he seems ineffective throwing 50+ pitches, there’s no way he can be a starter. That’s the bare minimum requirement of a starter. Because he’s not going to be effective over 90 pitches if that’s the case.

Myself, with regards to the closer question. The Cardinals and Mike Shildt and probably even the players would probably prefer to name one for the sake of roles. I’d prefer a committee approach. You have four trusted relievers - Gallegos, Cabrera, Luis Garica, TJ McFarland. Entering the game, map out who’s available that day and whose kind of available but maybe it’s better if they don’t pitch. When the starter exits see how many innings you need and see which of the relievers are available.

If the amount of innings is greater than available preferable relievers, you will need to use the relievers you don’t really trust to bridge the gap. Use one of the four if you need to get out of a tight spot before you really want to use them, but if you wait, your lead might be gone and they won’t pitch otherwise. So if it’s the 5th inning, the Cards are winning 4-2, and the starter is approaching 90 pitches and lets a baserunner on to lead off the inning, warm up one of the four. By the time they’re needed, there’s a good chance a base hit ties the game and a homer would almost certainly give the other team the lead.

But I know that’s not realistic and that’s not really want players want. I really don’t think you need to name a closer though, you could just try out different options and see if any stick. Eventually, one guy will string together a few saves without blowing any games and he ends up being the unofficial guy you always go to.

Do you guys think there’s any chance Reyes can still be a starter? I am skeptical, but I do think there’s a chance. But more of the “So you’re saying there’s a chance?” Dumb and Dumber quote, not the chances I get too drunk while my out of town cousin is in town who I never see chance. (I raised the bar too high. That is Adam Wainwright dominating the Pirates chance). But if there’s even a chance, why not try?