I remember the first time I ever saw Anthony Reyes pitch. It was in August 2005, when he made his big-league debut against the Milwaukee Brewers.
At the time, I was already a follower of the Cardinals' minor leagues, but not quite to the extent that I am now. For one thing, even just a few years ago, information was much harder to come by. Places like Future Redbirds and the like didn't exist yet, and Baseball America was still focused on their print editions, rather than its web operations.
The comparisons between Prior and Reyes were unavoidable. Both were power pitchers from southern California. Both were devotees of the Tom House school of mechanics. Both absolutely destroyed the minor leagues on a quick rise to the majors. Both wore their socks high. As off-season workout partners, it was impossible not to connect the dots between the two.
I was up at my dad's house the night Reyes made his debut. We had gotten a pizza, I believe from Imo's, and sat down to watch the coming of the Next Big Thing. The second that I saw Reyes throw a pitch, I saw why everybody kept comparing him to Prior. Their mechanics were eerily similar, as were the results. Reyes looked terrified in that first inning, but got out of it with no damage. His fastball hummed along nicely at 91-92 mph, and had great movement. He threw only one changeup that inning, I believe, but it was nasty.
After he settled down, he looked even more impressive. His fastball topped out at 96 mph. Even though there was a ton of talk already about how he still needed to work on his slider, he threw a couple of very good ones on the outside corner to righties. I think only one of his changeups was put into play the whole game. In short, the hype all looked to be true.
His final line for that game was six innings, four strikeouts, one walk, and two runs, both earned. He made one mistake all night, to Bill Hall. Reyes tried to throw a fastball up and in to jam Hall; he got it up but not far enough in, and Hall clubbed it to left for a two run homer. Still, by that time, Reyes already had a six run lead; the last thing you wanted to see him do was to be too careful.
The next morning, I listened to local AM sports station KFNS in the car. John Maracek used to do a show at about six in the morning, called the First Pitch, I believe. All that he, and the few callers he managed to squeeze in, could talk about was the debut of Anthony Reyes. The kid was absolute dynamite. As good as the numbers were, he was even more impressive to watch. You give this guy a bit more time to develop, and he's going to be an absolute stud. We all felt it.
Well, of course, it didn't quite work out that way. Anthony came into spring training the next year, competing for a spot in the rotation. Even then, there was already talk that the Cards wanted him to work on throwing a two seamer, work on getting ground balls. He was competing for a spot against fellow prospect Adam Wainwright and Sidney Ponson, the Jumbo Judge Puncher. Unfortunately, it wasn't really a fair fight. Both Reyes and Wainwright out-pitched Ponson, but his veteran power got him a spot in the rotation. Wainwright got a shot in the bullpen. Reyes got a ticket back to Memphis.
After Ponson fell apart and was released, Reyes was brought back up. His first big-league game in 2006 was against the defending champion Chicago White Sox. The Sox had just hung twenty runs and fourteen runs on the Cardinals the previous two days. Reyes one hit them. Unfortunately, that one hit was a home run to Jim Thome, and the Cardinals didn't score a single run against Freddy Garcia that day. So, Anthony's one-hitter was, in fact, a loss.
It was about this time that something disturbing started to show up. Whereas before, Reyes had thrown a blazing, four-seam fastball, changeup, and a nice little slider, there seemed to be some effort to change his repertoire. He started trying to throw a two-seam fastball at the request of his pitching coach Dave Duncan. He changed his slider, turning it into more of a slurvy curveball. More than anything, he started trying to adjust his mechanics, in order to try and get more on top of the ball.
Through the rest of 2006, as Anthony shuttled back and forth from Memphis to St. Louis, he struggled to adjust to this new style of pitching. He couldn't throw as hard this way, and his movement just wasn't there. The two-seamer, which required him to get on top of the ball and turn it over to generate sink, didn't fit his arm action, or his style. He couldn't get his new breaking ball under control, struggling to throw it for strikes. Basically, it just wasn't working for him.
Reyes interviewed by FOX 2's Maurice Drummond after the Cardinals clinched the World Series title
We all know what happened that October, of course. The Cardinals went into the World Series against the Detroit Tigers in bad shape, pitching-wise. They had been forced to use both Chris Carpenter and Jeff Suppan at the end of the NLCS against the Metropolitans, and neither was available for the first two games of the series. Even Jeff Weaver, the scrap-heap acquisition turned suddenly effective playoff starter, wouldn't pitch in Game 1. It looked like an uphill battle already for the St. Louis faithful.
Anthony pitched the game of his life that night in Detroit.
He gave up a run in the first inning, trying to be too careful, and we all groaned. The Tigers had their young ace, Justin Verlander, on the mound, and a one-run lead already. Things were looking dark for the Mudville Nine already. From that point on, though, Anthony went into shutdown mode. He retired the next seventeen batters in a row, finally giving up a hit to Jose Guillen in the seventh inning. He eventually retired 21 of the last 22 hitters he faced, the only blemish being a home run to Craig Monroe to lead off the ninth inning. In the meantime, the Cardinals jumped on Verlander and a shaky Detroit defense for seven runs. By the time Tony pulled Reyes out of the game after the Monroe homer, the game was well out of reach.
What can you say about that performance? The next night, the Cardinals were shut down by Kenny Rogers and his dirt clod. If not for Anthony in Game 1, the Cards very well could have gone back to St. Louis down two games to none. Who knows what happens then? At the very least, they wouldn't have clinched at home.
We all would have been robbed of seeing that celebration in the middle of the Busch Stadium diamond.
That was the high point for Anthony as a Cardinal. He came into the 2007 season with high expectations, and flopped. Personally, I happen to be of the belief that trying to change Reyes' mechanics and his approach was the cause of most of his problems. We saw a similar thing happen before, with Rick Ankiel. During the 2000 season,
Duncan worked with Ankiel to alter his delivery, trying to get him to throw less across his body, to open up earlier, and to get more on top of the ball in order to be able to throw a sinker. The end result? Rick Ankiel is now a very fine center fielder. Was the change in delivery and all responsible? I don't know, but I can't imagine it helped matters any.
And now, the Anthony Reyes saga is finally over. He was traded over the weekend for Luis Perdomo, a hard-throwing reliever who was pitching in Double A for the Cleveland Indians. It's best for everyone, I suppose, that the whole damn mess is just finished. Anthony can go elsewhere and try to succeed, away from the ground-ball hegemony of St. Louis.
Dave Duncan can move on and find pitchers he's more suited to work with. In hindsight, maybe the Cards should have tried to trade Reyes after that 2006 post-season, when he was a truly hot commodity. They already could see that he and Duncan weren't going to coexist very well; maybe then was the best time to try and maximize what you could get for him. Of course, at the time I, and thousands of other fans, would have screamed bloody murder.
Good luck, Anthony. I hope you figure out what you've lost in Cleveland. They seem to do a pretty good job of working with pitchers that have lost their way out there. Cliff Lee started the all star game this season after pitching himself back into the minors last year.
I hope you succeed just to throw it in the face of a team that did such a crap job of handling the Next Big Thing.