Depending on when you first heard of Alex Reyes, it might come as a surprise that the 22-year-old pitcher is in a playoff race with the St. Louis Cardinals.
A Google search reveals little—if anything—was written about him as an above-average but not particularly promising high school pitcher. If he threw in the mid-80s, that was a great day, but it wasn’t nearly good enough to gain the attention of the best college baseball programs, let alone professional scouts. Many of the country’s top prep players throw in the 90s as freshmen.
So those in Reyes’ hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey, might appreciate his unusual ascension over the past four years. But most baseball fans were first introduced to him this season, when both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus had him ranked as a top-10 prospect.
By then, he had developed a fastball that regularly hit 100 mph. As a result, many likely assumed he had always been a power pitcher. With the Cardinals, he regularly hits triple digits on the radar gun. He’s so electric that you turn your head from the game to watch him warm up in the bullpen.
“I never thought I would [throw 100],” Reyes said. “I was just out there trying to pitch my best baseball. That’s something that happened. I wasn’t necessarily looking for it. But I’m thankful for God giving me the opportunity.”
Reyes may credit divine intervention, but he had to navigate financial constraints and personal pitfalls on his way through one of baseball’s best organizations.
Nearly everyone living in a major metropolitan area is a short drive away from a pitcher who can throw in the mid-80s. That’s to say, it isn’t all that special. At that time, Reyes estimates he stood at 5’11”, a modest height for a pitcher.
His measurables didn’t command the attention of professional scouts, and finances prevented him from going to showcases such as the Area Code Baseball Games.
So he went to the Dominican Republic in December 2011. His grandmother lives there, and she provided him with a familial environment where he could focus on baseball.
“The way it worked out, that’s what my family thought would be best for me,” Reyes said.
Every summer, Reyes had visited the country, which is known for producing loads of major league talent. Since it is easier to get the attention of scouts on the small Caribbean island and he was comfortable living there, it seemed like a no-brainer.
Michael Thomas/Associated Press
It was in the Dominican Republic that Reyes would get his biggest break in his quest—a growth spurt.
Reyes sprouted to 6’3″, 175 pounds, which is how the Cardinals list him on their team website. But when you stand next to him, he looks more physically imposing than those measurements might indicate.
Imagine a more athletic version of New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia.
When he got bigger and stronger, Reyes’ fastball gained velocity. It was in the Dominican Republic that his fastball first touched 90 mph. Within a few months of playing there, he became a pitcher who consistently threw in the low 90s.
Reyes said it was then he thought his major league dream was within reach.
“I just wanted the opportunity to become a professional baseball player,” he said. “It’s been a dream for me since I was little kid watching big league guys on TV. Coming this far and making it here to this clubhouse, it’s been fun and [I’m] just trying to build off these experiences.”
In December 2012, the Cardinals signed Reyes as an amateur free agent. MLB rules state that a player must live in a foreign country for a year before he can become an international free agent.
For Single-A Peoria manager Joe Kruzel, the memory of Reyes’ first triple-digit pitch is so vivid that he needs no time to recall the moment.
“Yep, it was in Clinton,” he said immediately after being asked about that 2014 game. The Clinton LumberKings are a Seattle Mariners Midwest League affiliate based in Iowa.
In the immediate aftermath of the pitch, neither Kruzel nor Reyes had immediate confirmation that it had reached triple digits. The radar gun at the LumberKings‘ Ashford University Field didn’t get a reading.
“You’re standing in the dugout and say to each other, ‘Man, that ball had some hair on it. I mean that ball really came out of his hand,'” Kruzel said.
The Peoria manager glanced over at the guy who was charting Reyes’ pitches. He had an unusual expression that gave Kruzel an inkling. He already knew that Reyes had “tinkered at 99” a few times.
The team got confirmation after the game, which launched the clubhouse into a state of euphoria.
“It was fun knowing that, but [it] kind of opened my eyes and made me realize that you can have goals and reach them and things just kind of come your way,” Reyes said.
What Kruzel also remembers about that season is how Reyes matured. He became more of a leader, which seems like a classic cliche used to fill up interview time until Kruzel explains it in greater detail.
“He was the guy that helped the Latin guys out,” Kruzel said. “He was the guy they looked up to. He was the guy who cooked for them, got them comfortable and stuff. It was a great growing experience for him and his teammates because he really took those kids under his wing.
“It helped him understand the importance of everything around him and not just how hard you throw.”
That was the last season Kruzel would manage Reyes, who tore through the Cardinals’ farm system. In Single-A Palm Beach, he posted a 2.26 ERA in 13 starts with a 1.257 WHIP. That same year, he was promoted to Double-A Springfield, where his ERA ticked up to 3.12 but his WHIP dropped down to 1.125.
Reyes appeared well on his way to helping St. Louis at the major league level. He planned to play a full season in the Arizona Fall League when a misstep derailed those plans.
After starting only four games in Arizona, Reyes tested positive for marijuana. He admitted to using the banned substance and was suspended 50 games.
That abruptly ended his stint in the Arizona Fall League and caused him to miss the first 40 games of this season.
“Off the field is just as important on the field,” Reyes said. “It’s one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned and respecting the game and respecting yourself. You have responsibilities you had to deal with, and you have to be smarter with your decisions.”
Reyes joined Triple-A Memphis midseason and posted unsightly numbers, which were likely due to his layoff.
In 14 starts, his ERA was 4.96. But his stuff was still clearly electric, and given that there was a need at the major league level, the Cardinals promoted him in August.
On August 9, Reyes made his major league debut in the ninth inning of a 7-4 loss to the Cincinnati Reds. He needed only 11 pitches to retire three straight batters.
Reyes didn’t throw a single ball.
“Actually, it was a little more than what I thought it would be,” Reyes said of his first major league experience. “It’s been fun. Just soaking in all the experiences.”
So far this season, Reyes has a 1.52 ERA in 23.2 innings pitched, including two starts on August 27 against the Oakland Athletics and September 2 against the Reds.
During both starts, Reyes did not have his best stuff, going only 10.2 combined innings. But he allowed just three earned runs across those two outings, suggesting he has the elite-level skill of being able to keep his team in a game when his pitching repertoire isn’t at its peak.
Michael Thomas/Associated Press
“Every time you see a guy like that and he’s got the ability to throw and he’s got the changeup, it’s fun to call the game,” Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina said. “[I told him] just to have fun and stay humble and patient. Concentrate. Focus is more important. In his case, he’s mature enough to go out there and do the job.”
Lately, the Cardinals have been using Reyes in longer relief appearances. He pitched 3.2 innings in his latest outing on September 7 against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The idea is to keep his arm stretched out so that manager Mike Matheny can again use him as a starter.
“It’s more of just trusting your stuff,” Reyes said of what he needs to do to be successful in the majors. “I feel like if you sign a professional contract, you have a chance to make it to the major leagues. It’s going to take for you to do something that separates you from everyone else.”
For Reyes, it was that he was suddenly given the ability to throw harder than nearly every pitcher alive. Having gone through high school lacking that ability, he knows it’s a gift to cherish.
Seth Gruen is a national baseball columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.