The St. Louis Cardinals have plenty of young, promising, high octane arms in the bullpen. Even though they have struggled recently, Alex Reyes and Genesis Cabrera have shined at times this season and are promising relievers that figure to have key roles in the future. Ryan Helsley is another pitcher who is still young and is armed with a heater that averages 97.4 miles per hour. Cabrera’s fastball averages an almost identical 97.5 mph, and Reyes’ fastball is a tick slower at 96.6 mph.
With such high fastball velocities, it seems that these pitchers should have strong chase rates. Hitters have less time to react to these pitches and identify them, so it seems that hitters should have a greater propensity to chase pitches out of the zone. Additionally, high velocity fastballs open the door for secondary pitches as the speed difference can disrupt the timing of a hitter. As a result, if a hitter is guarding against the fastball, he knows he has to swing earlier and when an offspeed or breaking pitch is thrown at him, he can swing before he accurately identifies where the pitch is going to land. Despite this, the trio of Cabrera, Reyes, and Helsley have struggled to force hitters to swing at pitches outside of the strike zone. Cabrera and Helsley are in just the 14th percentile in chase rate and Reyes is in the 27th percentile.
This is likely due to a variety of factors. To begin with, a pitcher has to throw strikes to tempt the hitter into chasing a pitch out of the strike zone. When a hitter is ahead in the count, he is less likely to chase and more likely to look for a pitch he can do damage with.
All three of these pitchers have struggled with walks this season as the lowest walk rate among the trio is Cabrera’s 12.4% (the highest is Reyes’ 16.6%). Additionally, each pitcher has a well below league average first pitch strike rate as Helsley’s 57.9% is the highest, but still almost 3% below the league average. Reyes and Cabrera are each nearly 10% below the league average.
By not throwing strikes consistently, these pitchers are hurting their ability to get hitters to expand the zone. It is not a coincidence that Genesis Cabrera’s best season in terms of chase rate (29%) came in 2019 when he posted the lowest walk rate of his professional career (11.1%). The same is true of Ryan Helsley as he had a chase rate of 29.3% in 2019, the same year that he posted a career low 7.8% walk rate. Alex Reyes has never had a chase rate above 26.6%, but he has also never had a walk rate below 12.2%.
Improved control not only leads to more walks, but it could help these pitchers entice hitters to swing at more pitches off the plate. This is turn leads to better results for the pitchers, since pitches off the plate are generally more difficult to hit with authority.
Giovanny Gallegos helps to further emphasize this point. The right hander has always generated strong chase rates (career 34.5%) and has always had strong control (career 6% walk rate). He is an interesting comparison to these younger flamethrowers, and particularly Reyes, because he averages a solid, but more that two miles per hour slower, 94.3 mph on his fastball and also throws a good slider. TJ McFarland is another interesting example because his chase rate of 33.7% is well above average even though he averages less than 90 miles per hour on his fastball. He appears to get hitters to expand the zone with movement, and his pinpoint control (5.7% walk rate) helps him do that.
Besides a lack of control, there is another factor working against Cabrera, Reyes, and Helsley, and that is the fact that faster pitchers are (generally) straighter. This makes it difficult to force hitters to expand the zone as it is easier to envision where the pitch will land, even if there is less time to see it.
T.J. McFarland can help show this as the left hander’s arsenal primarily consists of an 88.7 mph sinker with an extra 7.7 inches of drop and 1.7 of run compared to the average sinker. He also throws a changeup with an extra 4.4 inches of drop and 1.5 inches of run. These pitches might not make many hitters miss, but the near-elite movement on them makes plenty of hitters chase.
There is potential for Cabrera, Reyes, and Helsley, though. All of them get good ‘rise’ on their four seam fastballs, especially Cabrera and Reyes. This can make hitters more likely to chase pitches above the zone as these pitches will not drop as much as the hitter might be expecting them to.
Genesis Cabrera also throws a curveball that drops 2.8 inches more than average, and Alex Reyes gets above average drop and run on both his slider and his curveball. Combined with their fastballs, these pitches could entice hitters to expand the zone. If Cabrera, Reyes, and Helsley could improve their control, then they would not only walk fewer batters, but they could also entice hitters into expanding the zone, which could, in turn, improve these pitchers’ results on contact.
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