Yesterday, we discussed the Miami Marlins' Nathan Eovaldi, who has issues with the strikeout but may prove to be improving. The Marlins are hoping another pitcher with major problems with the strikeout can show some improvement as well. Recent starting pitcher acquisition Henderson Alvarez is one of the keys to the Marlins' success in 2013, and it is imperative that the team help fix some of the problems that have been plaguing him. One of those issues is looking better thanks to his new locale in south Florida, while the other is still up in arms. Can Alvarez take steps to improve and become a decent mid-line starter for the Fish starting in 2013?
Alvarez, as we mentioned in the Pitch F/X profile on him, has a very clear book as of right now. Of the three pitchers who are keys to success this season, there is not one who has a better pitch than Alvarez's sinker or two-seam fastball. That is an elite ground ball-inducing pitch that has produced worm-burners on 62 percent of balls in play. Any pitcher would adore having a 92 mph pitch that can get that kind of result. Furthermore, it can only help Alvarez that he will be working with a good defense behind in the infield thanks to the additions of Adeiny Hechavarria and Placido Polanco. In his two-seamer, Alvarez has an extremely good pitch that can serve as the basis of his arsenal to get hitters out.
Unfortunately, he really has not developed any other pitchers, and that has led to the problems he has faced in the majors. If you thought the concerns about Eovaldi's strikeout totals were bad, those pale in comparison to the paltry figures that Alvarez has posted. In 2012, Alvarez struck out just 79 batters, and that was the 15th-worst mark among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched. None of the remaining 14 pitchers behind him in strikeouts pitched more than 152 innings, 35 innings less than Alvarez. Not ironically, only three of those pitchers, Brandon McCarthy (111 innings), Miguel Gonzalez (105 1/3) and Joe Kelly (107), had an ERA below 4.00. The other luminaries on that list included Derek Lowe, Chris Volstad, and Blake Beavan. No pitcher wants to be on that list.
Alvarez does not rack up strikeouts, and it is in part because his other pitches just are not well-developed like his two-seamer. His slider and changeup are his primary other tools, and while his changeup was touted as a plus pitch, it has not come close to achieving that status in the majors. His new slider has fared similarly. His four-seam fastball has the velocity but lacks the command needed to be a good mix-up offering. He may work it in the 94 mph region, but without proper placement in the zone, it can definitely get punished, as it was in 2012.
If this were Alvarez's only problem, you could probably overlook it, but he also has the home run issue as well. No pitcher with at least 200 innings in the last two years had a worse home run per fly ball (HR/FB) rate than Alvarez's 17.4 percent. That includes some of the worst offenders known in the league, like Tommy Hunter (16.4 percent), Joe Blanton (15.1), and the infamous Volstad (15.2). When you are out-Volstading Chris Volstad, you are doing something definitely wrong. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact reason for Alvarez's difficulties with the home run, though it is worth noting that he gave up a large majority of them on four-seam fastballs last season. This problem may continue the trend that Alvarez's secondary offerings might be too "hittable" for the league.
But there is hope yet. On the home run front, it must help that Alvarez is moving to Marlins Park, a stadium well-known for its home run suppression. Marlins Park's more pitcher-friendly environment should be a welcome sight for Alvarez given his old digs in Toronto. Then again, his rate of home runs allowed was actually worse on the road so far in his career (1.5 per nine innings) versus at Rogers Centre (1.3 per nine), so maybe that change will not be as much of a relief. If he can cut down on the home runs, however, and just strike out batters at a non-Derek Lowe rate, he can still be an effective starter.
But can he do that this season? What do the projection systems say?
Only one system, Steamer, seems decently optimistic at Alvarez's chances in the majors. The good news about this set of projections, however, is that they all agree that his strikeouts are on the way up simply due to regression of the mean. Without a significant track record for that kind of severe strikeout failure, there is no reason to suspect more than a season's worth of bad luck combined with his already weak strikeout skills. Each system thinks he will whiff about 12 percent of his batters faced.
The systems differ on home runs, particularly with regards to Steamer. It seems the system is abnormally projecting an extremely low home run rate; it is projecting just 11 home runs allowed in 161 innings pitched. While that number is sure to go down as well, it is difficult to believe that the past two years are indicative of no evidence of home run problems. Five other projection systems are projecting a homer rate of 1.1 per nine innings on average, and if we apply that number to the Steamer projection, that yields a FIP of 4.50, significantly higher than the 3.77 projection.
To account for the odd Steamer projected, I am going to put Alvarez's Steamer numbers alongside the next best home run rate projected by any system. Taking the average of all of these ERAs and FIPs yields a 4.42 ERA. Once again, yet another key to the Marlins' success is expected to put up an ERA in the mid 4.00's, much like Eovaldi and Jacob Turner before him.
Projection: 180 IP, 1.4 WAR
Alvarez turns out to be the most productive of the three pitchers, but that is only due to the likelihood that he will pitch most of the season. The Marlins are likely to give him the most slack because he has been a major league starter for a year and a half versus the two newer starters. The actual per-inning production level is expected to be surprisingly similar to the other two pitchers.
Alvarez's strikeout rate is expected to rise and his home runs are expected to drop. Those two factors alone are on the Marlins' side. But the fact that most experts agree that those numbers are not moving enough in 2013, it remains to be seen whether Alvarez can be more than just a fifth starter. Right now, he is perhaps a little better than Chris Volstad, and no Marlins fan can honestly be happy to hear that statement.