Can Henderson Alvarez figure out his significant problems well enough to become a Miami Marlins contributor? - Brad White
The Miami Marlins are looking for a number of pitchers to chip in to form a solid rotation surrounding top prospect Jose Fernandez. One of those pitchers is the tantalizingly talented yet frustrating trade import Henderson Alvarez.
Over the last few weeks, we have discussed a number of players upon whom the Miami Marlins may depend in the coming seasons. The Fish have five players whom they acquired in recent moves who could become critical aspects of the future competitive core of this team. The Fish, however, are not aware of which of these players will become those competitive core pieces, and they need to use the 2013 season to determine which ones have a future ahead of them.
The last player we will discuss in our ongoing series is one of the team's recent Toronto imports, starting pitcher Henderson Alvarez. Alvarez has spent two seasons and 251 innings in the majors and has established a few excellent habits that could help him to become an excellent pitcher in the big leagues. He has also established one horrific habit that could keep him from ever becoming a viable major league pitcher. Can the Marlins coax the best out of the talented but confusing Alvarez?
Why is Alvarez a Key to Success?
Like another pitcher in this series, Nathan Eovaldi, Alvarez has some tantalizing talent at his disposal. Eovalidi may boast one of the top fastballs in the league, but Alvarez is not far behind him, as he averaged 92.8 mph on his fastballs last season. That put him in a tie with names like Felix Doubront, Lance Lynn, and former Marlins starter Josh Johnson as well. While that fastball is clearly not at the level of Eovaldi's in terms of velocity, it certainly was no chump and had the requisite speed for success in the majors.
The added benefit of his fastball, two-seamer, and other pitches in his repertoire was the ability to induce ground balls. Among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched, Alvarez induced the sixth-highest ground ball rate in baseball at 57.0 percent. Only Trevor Cahill, Derek Lowe, Alex Cobb, Jake Westbrook, and Lucas Harrell did a better job getting hitters to pound the ball into the ground than Alvarez last year. He even beat out classic grounder guys like Justin Masterson and Tim Hudson in 2012. Whatever in his repertoire that is forcing those worm-burners, it seemed to work overtime for Alvarez, who upped the grounder rate from the previous year. In an environment like Rogers Centre in Toronto, that was a huge benefit.
Like in 2011, Alvarez also did a solid job of preventing walks as well, thus covering himself in two of three important defense-independent categories of pitching. Alvarez walked a batter in 6.7 percent of plate appearances, and while that was not as strong as his rookie season performance, it is still a promising thing to see for a young starter. Typically, young pitchers lack strong command and control of their typically overwhelming stuff, but it seems for Alvarez that this is not a concern, and it has never been one in the past; Alvarez walked only 4.5 percent of batters in his minor league career.
Alvarez seems to have the ground balls to avoid home run problems and the adequate control to not beat himself with walks. Unfortunately, that only covers two of the three legs of defense-independent pitching, and the third one is where he struggles mightily: strikeouts. Alvarez has struck out 119 batters in 251 innings pitched, good for a paltry 11.8 percent strikeout rate. Only four pitchers with at least 200 innings over the last two seasons have a worse strikeout rate than Alvarez, and all of them are either out of the league (Brad Penny, Carl Pavano almost) or not too far away from that level (Nick Blackburn). Baseball is not kind to the pitcher who fails to strike out hitters, and right now Alvarez is suffering from that problem. Hitters are simply making too much contact to the tune of an enormous 88.1 percent career contact rate on pitches swung at.
This would not be too bad of an issue if Alvarez did indeed limit walks and home runs to an extreme, but it seems as though he has an issue with the long ball as well. Despite the massive ground ball rate, Alvarez's fly balls have left the yard fairly frequently, as he has a career 17.4 percent home run per fly ball (HR/FB) rate. Part of that may be the nature of playing half of your games at Rogers Centre (18.9 percent HR/FB rate at home versus 15.9 percent on the road), but that alone does not explain why he is so homer-prone in general despite the extreme grounder approach.
Alvarez. in many ways, is much like Eovaldi in the sense that both players have serious flaws that need to be addressed before they can be strong contributors to future Marlins teams. The Fish are hoping that Alvarez can utilize his strong tools to figure things out, but it seems difficult to see him overcoming two major concerns enough to be a long-term starter in baseball. If he can figure them out to even a small degree, his future in the majors as a ground ball pitcher is confirmed, even if he never becomes a "good" player. But at this rate, I give him a chance equal to Eovaldi's, tying him for fourth among the five Marlins discussed in this series.