James Reeves stepped on the field in Tampa to accept an honor from his current team, the Tampa Yankees. Reeves was named Pitcher of the Month, just a week after holding down the Florida State League honor for Pitcher of the Week.
The day the lefty received the monthly award, he was preparing to take the mound for his 12th start of the 2016. He was upbeat and humorous in the early part of the day, but, later, as the game got closer, he was quieter, an unwavering focus showed on his face as he walked toward his locker. That mix of concentration and lightheartedness has served him well. In June, the Yankees switched the script and decided to make Reeves a full-time starter.
How’s that gone? Reeves, 23, has allowed 46 hits through 22 games, and just 17 earned runs through 78 innings, as a starter and reliever combined (he was promoted from Charleston at the end of April). Through ten starts between June and July he posted a 0.85 WHIP. He also lowered his ERA from 1.80 to 1.03, from June to July. And although his starts have been a mix innings-wise, he pitched a bit deeper in his last three consecutive outings, for a total of 18 innings. In the middle half of August, he’s got a 1.95 ERA and has walked just one batter through the month.
The transition seems effortless, with few bumps. The night he was honored, he struggled with command, but that’s a blip in what’s otherwise been a revelation of a season.
“James case is unique, because he was so dominant in the bullpen,” said Tampa manager Patrick Osborn. “You had a guy who was just mowing through people. So it was like, let’s see what he can do with more innings. And he hasn’t skipped a beat. He’s cruised.”
Reeves made a few starts for Osborn when they were both with Class-A (short season) Staten Island, but usually for no more than three innings. Add to the story that he’s in his second year of his professional career, after being drafted by the Yankees in the 10th round out of The Citadel where he was the 2015 Southern Conference Pitcher of the Year. He made his debut with Staten Island, where he pitched in 13 games, finishing the season with a 3.08 ERA in 26 innings for the Yankees affiliate.
There are endless debates about bullpen mentality, and how a bullpen should be used. But for starting pitchers, there’s often great resistance about being moved to the bullpen. The move feels like a demotion. Done the other way, while it might seem a compliment that the team literally expects more from you, everything must be adjusted.
The change in preparation is only part of the equation. No longer can he be a two-pitch guy. That can’t be all there is. Reeves relied on a mid- to high-80’s fastball/slider combo throughout his college career, and is working on developing a third pitch, his changeup. The lefty had to make the normal adjustments in the transition.
“The biggest difference is the daily routine. You have the ability to throw sides between starts and work on things,” said Reeves.
The Charleston, South Carolina native is in an interesting spot and could be part of the conversation of future Yankees pitching if he continues to have success. The Yankees history of developing starters hasn’t been a success, and certainly not recently, whether it was Dellin Betances, former top prospect Manny Banuelos, or Joba Chamberlain. The Yankees were endlessly criticized for their handling of Chamberlain’s career (you can still find Yankees fans insistent that the Yankees “ruined” him). And another first round pick, Andrew Brackman, who created early buzz in his pro career, is no longer playing. Betances’ story is, of course, entirely different. He was moved to the bullpen in the big leagues and he’s proven that’s where he’s meant to be. The Yankees didn’t surrender him easily, keeping him a starter for far longer than most people watching him pitch thought sensible. As it stands today, the system includes some top pitching talent, including righty James Kaprelian, and Tampa teammate and fellow lefty, Ian Clarkin.
And while it’s still early to tell, Reeves results should more than please the Yankees. The challenge he’s yet to face against tougher competition in Double-A should give him more of an opportunity to develop his repertoire in the next couple of years. The development of the changeup is ongoing and important. Reeves has good deception with the pitch, and Osborn also noted his “funky delivery,” as well as the changeup’s progress.
“He’s throwing that a little more,” said Tampa manager Patrick Osborn. “That’s a good thing. He’s got a good slider. He just keeps getting better.”
Reeves gives a lot of credit to the time he’s spent with Tampa pitching coach Tim Norton. They’ve focused on a number of areas, including the effectiveness of his changeup during mound work and playing catch. Another big part of the process has been consistency, something Reeves acknowledges he’s struggled with from time to time. Norton’s helped him return to that, in order to keep the flow of his game plan going.
“We have worked on having one consistent rhythm and timing to the plate. In the past, I’ve gotten away from my rhythm and that can cause inconsistencies in my outings. Overall he’s been a big part of my mental development,” said Reeves.
Reeves reflected on lessons learned since making his debut for the Yankees, and throughout this season. He talked about having to make all those big adjustments a whole lot faster. There’s no time to get weighed down by the mistakes. Perhaps that’s something he took with him from the bullpen. And it had to help that he was trained as a reliever and starter at The Citadel. He has a strong grasp of what it takes to be successful in either role.
“[You can’t] get bogged down in bad pitches. Learn to move on quicker or it’s really going to get you,” Reeves said.
He exhibited that mentality throughout that difficult mid-August outing, mixing speeds and hitters’ eye levels with a sharp breaking ball and an 85-89 mph fastball that he threw for strikes. When he started missing, it was usually on the inner part of the plate. But he continued to pitch to contact, working through the tougher calls and mistakes. In the third, when the game really started to get away from him, after allowing two straight base hits, he re-set. With guys on second and third, he pulled himself out of the trouble he’d gotten into following a mound visit from Osborn, getting a ground out to end the inning.
“That’s big for any pitcher when they get in those jams. But he’s been outstanding all year. He’s poised, he’s confident, he trusts his stuff. He has the ability that when his back’s against the wall, so to say, he can get out of it.” In a previous chat, Osborn noted that, “He goes right at guys. He isn’t afraid.”
The Yankees have entered a new era at the big-league level. And they’re undoubtedly entering a new era of possibility in the pipeline, with a lot of talent imported into the system at the trade deadline. Reeves’ name might not be on the tips of prospect-watchers’ tongues, but he’s making an impression with his managers.
“You look up and down the organization, in terms of pitching, and I’d say he’s up there,” Osborn said.
While the move to the rotation hasn’t been an overwhelming struggle for Reeves, he’ll need to rely on that mix of light-heartedness and concentration if he’s going to survive on a mid- to upper-80s fastball. Reeves recognizes that he has more potential, which he can unlock with more time in the rotation.
“I think confidence is gained with experience,” he said. “The more innings I get and the more starts I [make], I begin to feel more and more comfortable each time out. I’ve had some outings where I didn’t feel like I had my best stuff and was able to minimize some mistakes. I get a lot of confidence from those outings as well, because I think you learn more while handling adversity.”