The Miami Marlins would like for at least two out of their three young starting pitchers in their 2013 rotation to develop into core pieces to play a supporting role in a future competitive team. Perhaps the pitcher with the best pure stuff within his toolbox among the three starters is Henderson Alvarez, the hard-throwing righty who was acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays. As we explored yesterday, Alvarez already has one elite pitch, and that is a better start than any of the other two prospective starting pitchers can claim; neither Jacob Turner nor Nathan Eovaldi can claim they have a pitch as good as Alvarez's sinker.
But can he develop the secondary stuff necessary to succeed? The optimistic case says "yes."
The Optimist's View
The optimist's view on Alvarez all revolves around his excellent two-seam fastball. The Marlins have never had a pitcher who had such an elite ground ball-inducing pitch like Alvarez's two-seamer. It is telling that, in a season that was marred with many problems, it is odd to see his two-seamer perform so well despite those issues. Last year, he induced grounders on almost 64 percent of his balls in play off the fastball. Opposing hitters slugged less than .360 against the pitch. Sure, hitters made plenty of contact with it, but when all of your contact hits the ground, more often than not that contact is also safely rolling into the hands of infielders for quick and easy outs. Even with a weak Marlins defense, that would be a good thing, and in 2013 the team's infield should be significantly improved with the addition of Adeiny Hechavarria and Placido Polanco in the left side of the infield.
The Marlins now have a passable infield to support Alvarez's ground ball game, but the problem has never been about his issues on the ground. The problem is that batters are not generating enough air on their swings (whiffs) and are often getting too much air underneath when they make contact (home runs). The move to Miami helps in one of these cases. Alvarez will be going from a hitter-friendly park in the game in Rogers Centre, which allowed home runs four percent more than the average stadium over the last five seasons, to Marlins Park, which was rated in its one year as suppressing homers by eight percent. While it may generally be true that ground ball pitchers allow more homers on their fly balls, this problem is much more likely to fall with Alvarez pitching within Miami's large walls.
As for the strikeout issues, if Alvarez can begin controlling his home runs, he may not have to be able to strike out too many more hitters. History shows that many ground ball pitchers can avoid having a high strikeout rate if they keep their walk rates down and suppress their home runs. Derek Lowe, Tim Hudson, and others are excellent examples of pitchers who got away with just 15 or 16 percent strikeout rates, seven percent walk rates, and excellent numbers over the course of their careers. Those two players boasted career ground ball rates of 62.3 and 58.7 percent respectively.
In fact, among players with the highest ground ball rates in the last three seasons, the majority hover around a 4.00 ERA just on the back of decent control and passable strikeout rates, goals that Alvarez could easily reach. The pitchers with the top 10 ground ball rates with at least 300 innings over the past three years have averaged a 4.13 ERA and 4.02 FIP, If you do not weight the numbers by innings, you get an average ERA of 4.25 and 4.06, which indicates at worst a slightly below-average starter.
If you buy Alvarez as good enough to get significant innings, that would require that he start preventing home runs like the pitchers in the top ten list. He should be aided by the move to Marlins Park, and thus he is more likely to reach that comfortable level akin to other ground ball pitchers. Once he is there, the mountain to get to league average or better is not that large, and Alvarez's secondary pitches only need a little more fine-tuning before they reach success.
Assuming he adds just 21 strikeouts to his paltry 2012 mark (making it an even 90) puts him at a fairly pathetic 11.2 percent strikeout rate. Cutting 10 home runs from regression to the mean and the move to Marlins Park gives him an acceptable 0.9 home run per nine innings rate, Such a number would give an estimated 4.29 ERA by FIP, and such a mark would not be bad and is not entirely unbelievable. With some extra improvement, a 4.00 ERA in 2013 is certainly not out of the question either, and would put Alvarez well on the way to being a good contributor to the Marlins of the future.