In the majors, certain pitching match-ups generate a buzz in the ballpark. The same thing happens in the minors, though the excitement is typically reserved to the scouts sitting behind the plate, while most of the rest of the stadium finds their seats, oblivious to the pitching delight on their plate for the evening.
Such was the occasion in St. Lucie on Monday night, with Cardinals prospect Alex Reyes slated to toe the slab. The big right-hander has already received his fair share of attention, ranking third in our Cardinals Top 10 this offseason, but reports of his velocity ticking up towards the triple-digit mark early this season further fueled the desire to see him in action. I was even jokingly accused by one scout of a little big-game hunting, seeking out the big velocity pitchers in my journey through the Florida State League. He’s not completely wrong.
It wasn’t just Reyes that I was excited about, however. Opposing him that night was Robert Gsellman, a 21-year-old Mets right-hander who has flown remarkably under the radar over parts of five professional seasons. It isn’t very often I come across a prospect I know very little about who impresses me as much as Gsellman had just a week earlier, and when that happens, my natural reaction is to want to see him again to see if it was a mirage or if this is someone we need to start talking about. Getting to see him just a week later was as exciting to me as catching the big fish.
Reyes immediately showed everything that we look for in an elite pitching prospect. From his pregame long-toss routine to his warm-up in the bullpen, it was easy to see why there was a buzz among the 8-10 scouts there to watch him. Big bodied and thick, Reyes is significantly heavier than the 185 pounds he’s listed at in most publications, and likely even heavier than the 220 pounds posted in the Cardinals’ game notes. It’s good weight though, sitting mostly in his legs, giving him a solid base upon which he can support his frame. He’s built to eat up innings.
The reputation of Reyes’ command issues have preceded him, so my biggest target of exploration for the evening surrounded his mechanics and whether they are what has precluded him from not only throwing strikes, but throwing the right ones.
Reyes has the definition of a lose arm. It moves cleanly from break to release point and he repeats both pieces of the delivery well. The arm action is not overly long (which can sometimes make it difficult to repeat), with a slightly short movement on the back end as he breaks his hands, but not enough to prevent him from getting excellent extension to the plate. He gathers himself well at the top of his delivery, supported by the aforementioned thick legs, and does not rush through the load in his delivery up through his peak moment of inertia.
So far so good, but it’s from here that the command falls apart.
One phrase you hear a lot with pitching prospects is ‘effort in the delivery.’ This phrase describes just how much physical energy a pitcher exerts, or needs to exert, in his delivery in order to generate his velocity, spin, etc. Essentially, how hard does he work when he delivers the ball. Craig Kimbrel has a high-effort delivery. That’s why he only throws one inning at a time.
Corey Kluber looks like he’s throwing batting practice. That’s why he can throw 100 pitches per game.
Some pitchers need effort in their delivery in order to generate their velocity. This is part of why we sometimes predict that a player will throw a few miles per hour harder as a reliever, where they can exert themselves more per pitch. Other pitchers generate their velocity more naturally without having to fully exert themselves.
Reyes falls into the latter category, but pitches like the former. There is effort in his delivery where there doesn’t need to be. While some pitchers need to explode towards the plate in order to throw in the 90s, Reyes does not. He gets to the top of his delivery cleanly, but the explosion towards the plate contains more effort than is necessary, and it costs him the command of his fastball.
Below is a pitch-by-pitch chart of Reyes outing from Monday:
The blue pitches are ones where Reyes hit his catcher’s called location (note: this is different from balls and strikes; a pitcher can hit his location and still miss the strike zone, in fact it happens quite often) while the orange is where he missed.
Reyes sat comfortably at 95-98 mph throughout the game and touched 99 mph. Clearly, generating velocity is not his problem. He can throw hard with ease, but continually tried to over-throw, causing his command to waver. For the game, he hit his catcher’s location with just 51 percent of his fastballs (34 of 67 thrown).*
*For context, I charted a start of April’s NL pitcher of the month, Gerrit Cole’s, who throws similarly hard, but sports a 2.3 BB/9 rate on the season. In his start on April 29 against the Cubs, in which he went 6 IP, 3 H, 1 R (0 ER), BB, 8 K, he hit his catcher’s spot with 58 percent of his fastballs (40 of 69).
A deeper look tells us more about Reyes, however. When he eased off with the fastball and stopped trying to throw as hard, his command improved significantly. On pitches in the 96-97 mph range, he hit his location with 26 out of 40 fastballs (65 percent). On fastballs 98 mph or harder, he hit his location just three times out of 11 pitches (27 percent).
We’re dealing with small samples, inconsistent radar guns, and my own personal subjectivity here, so it’s not quite as cut and dried as that, but the results back up what those of us behind the plate noticed during the game. It was visibly obvious when Reyes remained under control throughout his delivery and when he was trying to ramp up his velocity, with multiple utterances not to overthrow coming from those around me.
At present, Reyes commands his curveball better than his fastball, and he relied on the secondary pitch when he fell into trouble or found himself struggling to throw strikes. It’s a hammer of a pitch, already a plus offering with the potential to be a plus-plus pitch at its peak. He stays on top of it well, and because of his high release point, it features big, yet still sharp 12-6 movement. It’s a weapon he can use against hitters in either batter’s box in any count.
The same command issues are not the case for Gsellman, who is, to date, a considerably more polished pitcher.
A former 13th-round prep pick in 2011, it’s easy to see why Gsellman has been overlooked. Sitting at 90-92 mph for most of the game, he doesn’t overwhelm scouts with talent. He has a long track record of throwing strikes, but so do many pitchers, and before last year, he’d never missed enough bats to gain enough traction in prospect circles. Even now, the peripheral numbers are adequate, but not extraordinary, especially when compared to a player like Reyes.
Two major factors separate Gsellman, however, both from wild flamethrowers like Reyes and from the dearth of other minor league pitchers commanding low-90s fastballs: Gsellman gets very good arm-side run on his fastball, generating a ton of weak contact, and his plus curveball is a legitimate secondary pitch that he can throw to anyone at any time.
It’s the fastball that stood out the most on this evening when juxtaposed against the velocity of Reyes. While the Cardinals righty popped the radar gun, Gsellman repeatedly popped his catcher’s mitt. Below is his chart for the evening:
Gsellman hit his location with 60 percent of his fastballs on the evening, enough for any pitcher to have success and far too much for Florida State League hitters to handle. He commanded his curveball well too, and while it doesn’t have the massive break of Reyes’ offering, it still has the potential to be a plus pitch. The biggest difference between this outing and my first view of Gsellman, however, was the use of his changeup, both in frequency and effectiveness. He threw it almost a quarter of the time on Monday, and did so with remarkable consistency, keeping the pitch in or just below the bottom of the strike zone. It doesn’t have the movement you’d want from a plus version of the offering, but the change of speed and location make it a third potentially average pitch and one more thing for hitters to keep in their minds.
Any pitching coach will tell you that the three most important things for a pitcher are location, movement, and velocity—in that order. That’s for pitching effectiveness, of course, not projection. It’s easy to see why Reyes is the more highly touted prospect, but Gsellman is a better present pitcher, is only a year older, and is still plenty young for the level of competition he’s currently dominating. He’s a legitimate pitching prospect in his own right.
Gsellman is going to develop into an effective major-league starter and could move quickly through the Mets system. With his fastball velocity peaking in the low 90s, his ceiling isn’t nearly as high as Reyes’, but he’s much closer to reaching it. He won’t be leading any big-league rotations, but he’s a safer bet to be in one someday.
For Reyes, the question comes down to fastball command. The velocity is not in question, grading out as a true 70 future potential pitch. The curveball is also a plus-plus offering, and is much closer to reaching that potential, giving him a chance to attack hitters with a pair of 7s. That’s something that few pitchers even have a chance at doing, placing his ceiling higher than 95 percent of the pitching prospects in the game today.
A scout asked me after the game whether or not I thought Reyes would be able to develop the command he required to be able to remain a starter. I don’t know if he will, but I’m inclined to say that he can. The mechanics have the potential to be sound, and the body control is a work in progress as he learns to handle his additional weight. He showed the ability to make in-game adjustments and command the pitch better when he could resist the temptation to overthrow.
With many pitching prospects, the battle to command the fastball is physical. With Reyes, it appears to be mental.
That distinction gives me hope that he will be able to make the necessary adjustments. For the sake of his development, the Cardinals might want to consider taking his curveball away from him for some time; or at least limiting his usage of it as a crutch, forcing him to command his fastball more effectively and work on his under-developed changeup.
There is no denying Reyes’ talent, and his raw ability is the best I’ve seen since my look at Lucas Giolito last summer. But despite the gaudy numbers, Reyes still has a ways to go. Velocity is great, and it creates a ceiling above what most players can achieve, but it will be nothing without improved command. The curveball is a true weapon, but he’ll need a third pitch to approach major-league usability to keep hitters from cheating. A two-pitch mix, no matter how good, with below-average fastball command always has a chance at equaling reliever, and without improvement, there is a chance Reyes ends up in a major-league bullpen where his effort and command won’t be exposed, and his curveball can dominate helpless right-handed hitters.
Reyes has the natural ability to get the command where it needs to be to remain a starter. But despite his minor-league dominance, there is still a large gap between present ability and future potential, and it all centers around fastball command.
|Born: 08/29/1994 (Age: 20)|
|Bats: Right||Throws: Right|
|Height: 6' 3"||Weight: 185|
|Good body control, athletic, gathers well at top of delivery; electric arm, plus arm speed; clean mechanics, some shortness on takeaway; good extension towards plate; high three-quarters release point; repeats delivery well when he stays under control and doesn't overthrow; some effort in delivery when he overthrows, but not every time.|
|Affiliate||Palm Beach Cardinals (High-A, Cardinals)|
|Realistic||60, No. 3 starter/set-up man|
|Pitch Type||Present Grade||Future Grade||Sitting Velocity||Peak Velocity||Report|
|Fastball||55||70||96-98||99||Explosive fastball, elite velocity, plus-plus potential; straight, slight arm-side run but not enough to generate ground balls; strong downward plane; below-average present command stemming from tendency to overthrow; pitch operates best 1-2 mph below peak velocity when it can be commanded better; showed ability to command pitch when under control.|
|Curveball||55||70||78-81||82||Already a present above-average major-league offering; potential to be better with improved consistency in mechanics and better fastball command; true 12-6 break with depth, controlled well vertically, showed ability to throw it for strikes or bury it down in or below the strike zone for an out pitch; can improve horizontal command to each side of plate; comfortable throwing to hitters of either handedness; will throw at any point in the count.
Showed a tendency to use pitch as a crutch when he could not command fastball, began to lean on pitch to get ahead in counts.
|Changeup||40||45||87-88||Below-average present offering but has a chance to be close to major-league average; doesn't offer much movement but shows some slight arm-side fade; tendency to get too firm; showed ability to throw for strikes; average present control but below-average present command; deception on pitch comes from elite arm speed more than movement on pitch.|
Reyes is an elite talent, possessing the potential for two 70 pitches and the frame to handle the rigors of being a starting pitcher. That gives him an extremely high ceiling, but his lack of fastball command makes the gap between present and future ability still quite large. The curveball is currently far ahead of the fastball in terms of in-game utility, and he leans on the pitch when he struggles to throw the fastball for strikes. His mechanics aren't the issue, as he has the ability to repeat his delivery when he remains under control. His biggest present issue is a strong tendency to overthrow. Simply put, Reyes likes throwing hard and adds effort to his delivery in order to do so. That effort is unnecessary, as he generates plenty of velocity without it, and it throws off his mechanics and release point. This tendency is not nearly as evident when he throws his curveball.
The command of his fastball will ultimately determine what kind of starter he can become, or whether or not he can remain one at all. If he can't, he should have no trouble becoming a dominant two-pitch, late-inning reliever. If he can gain even average fastball command, he will be able to remain in a big-league rotation, and if enough progress is made, he could lead one. Even without the development of a third pitch, two plus offerings should be enough to remain a starter. The fastball command will have to improve, however, in order for him to avoid a fate as a reliever.
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