By Rob Rains
MEMPHIS – The person who might be in the best position to talk about how Alex Reyes has progressed as a pitcher is the guy who has squatted behind home plate and caught him 19 times over the last three seasons.
Starting on April 6, 2014 when Reyes and Carson Kelly were teammates on the Class A Peoria Chiefs and continuing through his start for the Memphis Redbirds on Tuesday night, Kelly has watched – literally – everything Reyes has done on the mound.
“Night and day” is the phrase Kelly uses to describe the difference in Reyes’ performance over those three years, spanning Reyes’ 13th career start to his 67th.
“It was the first full season I was catching and you’re challenged with a guy who throws 100?” Kelly said. “It was definitely interesting. It was a great opportunity to see his development, from Peoria to Palm Beach to here.
“Now he’s pitching. He doesn’t just go out there and blow it by guys. He’s figuring out counts, and what he wants to throw in certain situations. That’s the difference.”
Kelly caught nine of Reyes’ 21 starts in Peoria in 2014, and seven last season in Palm Beach before Reyes was promoted to Double A Springfield. The two were reunited at the Triple A level after the All-Star break this year, when Kelly was promoted to Memphis, and they have worked together in each of Reyes’ last three starts.
What Kelly has seen, from a different point of view, is the same thing Reyes has seen in himself on the mound and Memphis manager Mike Shildt and pitching coach Bryan Eversgerd have observed from the dugout – a work in progress who is continuing to develop and improve, and inch closer to the day when the call will come that summons him to the major leagues.
Whether that day will come in the next week, the next month or a little later is perhaps the only question. There is no doubt that the best pitching prospect in the organization, still a month away from his 22nd birthday, will soon be on his way.
What has moved Reyes to the precipice of the major leagues, the culmination of a childhood dream, is his improved command and consistency, the ability to not only throw strikes but to throw what Reyes describes as “quality” strikes.
He has learned the difference this season as he faces more experienced hitters, who have challenged him and made him realize what he needs to do to improve – not only to be successful in Triple A, but one day soon, with the Cardinals.
“I feel like my fourth or fifth start here I was just trying to throw strikes because that’s what everyone has been telling me, ‘just throw strikes, you’ll get a lot more success,’” Reyes said. “But I know I have to throw quality strikes, down and away, down and in. You can miss up if you want to miss up but you have to get your breaking ball down in the zone.
“That’s probably been the biggest lesson so far. Everybody knows the scouting report, what I throw. When games are going well is when you are able to mix in off-speed pitches and throw them for strikes.”
Shildt had never seen Reyes pitch in an official game until Reyes arrived in Memphis for a start on May 22 after completing his 50-game suspension for testing positive for marijuana. Shildt knew Reyes came with a 100 mile per hour fastball, a great curveball and a developing changeup, pitches which had earned him universal recognition as one of the best pitching prospects in the game.
What Shildt wanted to see, however, went beyond the quality of those pitches. What he wanted to see for himself went beyond the radar gun reading on Reyes’ fastball or the size of the break on his curveball.
He wanted to see Reyes’ dedication, his desire to be the best pitcher he could be.
“He is more conscientious than most guys, regardless of age,” Shildt learned. “He pays attention. He listens. He wants to do well. Because of that he continues to hone his craft. There maybe have not been huge leaps, but you don’t get as many huge leaps at higher levels. It’s about refinement.
“He asks questions, which we appreciate. He talked to Jerome Williams (when he was in Memphis) and he talks to Jeremy Hefner. He’ll talk to Jason Isringhausen when he’s in town. He talks to Gerdy. When he’s charting games or doing other things he’s really paying attention. His sides are productive; there’s a method to it, a sense of purpose.”
After each of Reyes’ first few starts with the Redbirds, Shildt and Eversgerd brought him into the manager’s office to discuss how the game went – good or bad. The manager and pitching coach wanted to see what Reyes thought of the game; then offered their opinion – part of the learning and developing process. They don’t need to have those meetings after every game any longer.
“Every day you have an opportunity to improve your craft,” is the message Shildt tries to deliver to Reyes and every other player in the Memphis clubhouse. “What are you doing today that’s going to allow that to happen? Even on days you are not pitching – every day is an experience and you grow from your own experiences. Take advantage of today and figure out a way, as Mr. (George) Kissell would say, to add tools to your toolbox and understand how to use the tools that are in there.”
That’s exactly what Reyes is doing, taking that advice to heart.
“I watch the guys we have and the guys we face as well,” he said. “Even hitting against guys, I realize, ‘Wow, he’s only throwing 87-88, but it’s down and away, in a perfect corner.’ Being around the game and watching the game, I feel that’s how you learn.
“Even days when you don’t pitch, I will be in the dugout watching our pitchers’ tendencies and their pitchers’ tendencies. I’ve just learned how consistent you’ve got to be with everything you do, your routine in general. Every time you go out there it’s about consistency. I’ve faced a lot of these teams a couple of times and it’s not about trying to do more. It’s just about executing your pitches and mixing things up.
“I’ve come a long way, but there’s still a lot to learn. I’m learning every day. In this game you can’t be complacent and feel you know everything. Even veteran guys we have in our clubhouse are trying to learn something every day.”
Like Shildt, Eversgerd had never worked with Reyes before this season, even though he has been coaching pitchers throughout the Cardinals’ minor league system for more than a dozen years. Since May, he has seen the signs of improvement he was hoping would come.
“To Alex’s credit he’s starting to understand how to use the weapons he has, how to mix them, how one plays off the other,” Eversgerd said. “He has the ability with his curveball to throw a four-seam fastball on top and above the zone. He’s starting to learn the little cat and mouse game, which is great.”
Eversgerd, like Shildt, also has seen the development in Reyes during games when he does not have his best stuff, for whatever reason. He has been able to make the adjustments he needed to make to keep the game from getting out of control.
“One of the things I’ve been really impressed with since the day he got here is his composure with runners on base,” Eversgerd said. “He doesn’t get too rattled. He’s focused on getting the next guy. He knows that if he can make a pitch to the next guy the first hit doesn’t matter.”
Added Shildt, “A lot of times we evaluate guys when they aren’t doing as well as they would like. When you’re compromised, in a struggling spot, high leverage, whatever … now let’s see how you can handle it. Alex has gotten into some higher pitch counts early in the game, had some traffic early and found himself in a spot where if a guy was not focusing properly or can’t harness his focus better he would struggle and be out of the game or allow a really big number.
“Most every time the observation with Alex has been that he’s been able to bear down and keep his composure and find a way to execute and get through it.”
Those lessons have taken time. More than four years have passed since Reyes’ career began in the rookie level Appalachian League, pitching for Johnson City in 2013. It’s hard for him to fully explain everything he has learned over that time, both on and off the field.
One lesson has been obvious, however.
“The days when you don’t have your best stuff are the most important days because that’s where you are going to make the most in-game adjustments, and you’re going to pitch more instead of just throw,” Reyes said. “On days when you don’t have your best stuff is when it kind of shows your manager what your down days are going to look like. ‘If he doesn’t have his best stuff, can he still go deep in the game can he get quick outs and help his bullpen?’ The days you don’t have your best stuff are the most important days.”
Reyes had his good stuff in his start Tuesday night against Oklahoma City, even though it was planned in advance to be an abbreviated start, working with a limit of 60 pitches. He struck out seven of the 11 hitters he faced. He walked one, and made only one mistake – leaving a fastball over the middle of the plate, and the hitter didn’t miss, slamming a two-run homer.
“I was trying to execute a pitch and hopefully get a ground ball and I missed my spot,” Reyes said. “When you miss middle-middle you can’t expect good results.”
After allowing the home run to the second batter of the second inning, Reyes struck out the next four hitters. He didn’t let one mistake multiply into more.
Kelly was not surprised.
“I’ve seen him at every stop almost except Double A, and every year there’s something else I notice every time I’ve caught him,” Kelly said. “He’s working his way toward being where he wants to be.
“What I noticed more this year was his command, his posture, his composure. It’s starting to all come together and ultimately that’s what you need to be a big-league pitcher.”
Shildt understands one of the challenges for Reyes is dealing with expectations, the pressure of being a top prospect, someone who knows the door to the major leagues will open soon. He has been impressed with how Reyes has handled the situation.
“To his credit he’s stayed in the present, which has got to be hard for him,” Shildt said. “He’s coming off the Futures Game, and he clearly was dominant there. As guys get closer (to the majors) it’s human nature and it gets harder to keep yourself focused properly.”
In the last week, Reyes has watched four of his fellow Memphis pitchers get promoted to the majors, even if in a couple of cases it only was for one day. He is doing his best to not get too concerned about when it will be his turn.
“When a guy gets called up from here it’s amazing,” Reyes said. “It’s fun being in the clubhouse where all of the movement happens. When they are pitching in the big leagues we’re most likely watching the game on television. It’s a great feeling. If I make it I’m sure they will be doing the same thing for me, and it would be a humbling experience.
“I try not to think about it because you can’t control that. The only thing you can control is what you are doing on the field and trying to give your team a chance to win. I just want to go out there and perform.”
When the day comes that Reyes finds himself in the major leagues, it will complete what has been an eventful year – rising to the top after beginning this season on the back fields of the Roger Dean Stadium complex in Florida, unable to be where he wanted to be because of a mistake he made last fall.
“It will be crazy,” Reyes said. “The major leagues are the highest level in baseball, you can’t go past that. It will be a dream come true. I remember as a little kid playing in the back yard we always said, ‘Game 7, World Series’ and stuff like that. It will be pretty sick to make it to the majors, accomplishing something not many people get to do. It would be pretty awesome.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains