Henderson Alvarez isn’t the best starter on the Marlins, obviously. He isn’t the second-best either, unless you really dislike Nathan Eovaldi. Tom Koehler has his supporters, and a lower ERA. Andrew Heaney is coming, and so is Justin Nicolino. If you’re looking for young pitching, the Marlins have lots of it, some younger than Alvarez, others with more talent. And yet here we are, in our second Marlins-related post of the last 24 hours — let it never be said that we only love the big-market teams — focusing on Miami’s mid-rotation starter, because he might just be the most fascinating player that no one seems to know about, for just so many different reasons.
Alvarez, of course, shut out the Mets on Tuesday night, his second shutout of the season, his third in his last eight starts, and we’ll get to that in a second. But first, think about what we knew about him already. He is, so far as I can find, the only player in the history of professional baseball to have the first name of “Henderson.” He’s one of the only players to participate in a political protest outside his own clubhouse. (Not against the Marlins, as justifiable as that would be.) He is, I imagine, the only pitcher to have a novelty windup for the first pitch of every game:
(“I invented it myself,” said Alvarez. I suppose that’s better than “I lost a bet.”)
He threw, as you most likely remember, one of the most unlikely games any of us have ever seen, tossing a no-hitter against the Tigers on the final day of the 2013 season, a game that ended not with his teammates rushing him on the mound as he got the final out, but in the on-deck circle, where he’d been waiting to hit before his teammates broke a scoreless tie in the bottom of the ninth.
There’s also this: Henderson Alvarez throws really, really hard, somehow strikes nobody out, and now joins Adam Wainwright as the only pitchers in baseball with shutouts in each of the last three seasons. Alvarez has two shutouts this year. Martin Perez, inexplicably, also has two. 28 other teams have either one or zero. There may be no more likely pitcher to be tossing up zeroes than the guy with an approach like just about no one else.
Remember, Alvarez was part of the massive Toronto / Miami trade in the winter of 2012-13. Maybe he was lost in the midst of everything that trade meant for both franchises, and because his name wasn’t Josh Johnson or Jose Reyes or Mark Buehrle or Adeiny Hechavarria or Yunel Escobar. But if you knew him for anything before that, it was most likely this: his one full season in the Toronto rotation ended with numbers that just shouldn’t be possible. In 187.1 innings, he struck out 79. That’s a 3.80 K/9 rate.
Since 2000, we have 953 pitcher seasons of at least 180 innings in the database. 941 of them featured a higher K/9 than Alvarez’ 2012; of the ones that didn’t, Kirk Rueter and Carlos Silva accounted for three apiece. Nate Cornejo threw five more major league games after his low-whiff season. Brad Penny threw 28 more innings. And, it should go without saying, since hitters strike out more than they did a decade ago, that Alvarez was doing this in 2012 and not in 2002 is even less impressive. Missing an extreme lack of bats is generally a good way to not be in the majors for much longer.
Penny, of course, was cooked at the end of a decent career. Silva and Rueter were notorious soft tossers. Alvarez doesn’t belong with them. He has 56 pitches in the PITCHf/x database at 95 mph or above in 2014. Six are swinging strikes. On the television broadcast last night, he hit 97, though PITCHf/x doesn’t totally back that up. He’s not a junkballer; he has real major league heat. We know, of course, that there’s a sizable correlation between strikeout rate and velocity. Alvarez managed to buck that trend to a hilarious extent, yet without the impeccable control and zero-tolerance home run rate (in 2012, at least) one would expect he’d need to survive.
Clearly, he’s changed. But how? Back in 2012, Carson Cistulli surmised that Alvarez was either abandoning his change or just throwing it harder. Carson was right, as he most usually is. A year and a half later, we can see that he’s throwing everything somewhat harder; what is considered a “change” is actually at 90 mph. His zone percentage is a bit higher. His swinging-strike percentage is slightly higher; his other major zone peripherals haven’t changed much.
But what we can see is that he’s begun to get some separation between his pitches, as shown in his vertical movement chart below. Starting last year, his slider started coming in differently from his other pitches. So far this year, his four pitches have four very different amounts of vertical movement, indicating that his slider actually slides, rather than presenting a reasonable, if unintentional, facsimile of his change:
Also, consider the effects of control that don’t necessarily manifest themselves in walk rate. As a sinkerballer, Alvarez has to live low in the zone. Compare his 2012 low pitches to this year — obviously, he threw far more pitches in 2012 than he has so far in 2014 — and note that so far, when he’s missed, it’s been close to the zone, rarely far outside it as it had been.
If you know you don’t have elite swing-and-miss stuff, then painting the corners is a good way to survive that, if you’re able. So far, that appears to be Alvarez’ plan. As he said last night, “I just concentrated on keeping my breaking ball down and letting the batter swing.” Down is good, and Alvarez only just turned 24 last week. An unimaginable rookie season doesn’t preclude the ability to improve.
Back to Tuesday, Alvarez carved up the Mets, throwing this to Juan Lagares, notable mainly for the way the Marlins broadcast described it as a “a super sinker which is actually a change-up that darts down at 91 miles per hour, if you can believe it. He throws that with a semi change-up grip.”
Against Chris Young, Alvarez busted this out:
He also made a bit of his own luck:
These are quality major league pitches. He’s still primarily a sinkerballer, of course, from which he collected 13 outs last night. His groundball rate is 55.6% since 2012, among the highest in the game. But now, it seems, he’s got the secondary pitches to back it up, and even if the four-seam fastball doesn’t necessarily fool anyone, the ability to throw it at 95 mph means that hitters can’t forget about it.
Alvarez isn’t suddenly a strikeout king, obviously. We’re still talking about a guy with a 6.8 swinging-strike percentage and a 5.84 K/9. Neither is particularly impressive, yet they’re at least improved above the laughably terrible numbers he had in 2012. Remember, also, that the three shutouts in eight games have come against the Mets, the Mariners, and a last-day-of-the-season Tigers team that had no interest in competing and offered a grand total of one plate appearance from Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera, Alex Avila, Torii Hunter, Austin Jackson, Jhonny Peralta and Victor Martinez. Those are valid reasons to question what he’s done, but not at all valid reasons to ignore the fact that, hey, three shutouts in eight games. Most pitchers can’t do that; most pitchers will never do that. Then again, most pitchers don’t throw pure heat and find they can’t strike guys out in a game where everyone strikes out. Little about Henderson Alvarez seems to follow the path we’re familiar with. Why should this?
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