The Miami Marlins have two important pitching names in addition to phenom starter Jose Fernandez on whom they are counting for good seasons in 2014. One of those pitchers is the high-ceiling, fireballing Nathan Eovaldi. The other is the ground balling, steady, but unspectacular Henderson Alvarez, who quietly put together a strong season opposite Eovaldi in 2013. That season ended with the fifth no-hitter in Marlins franchise history on the last game of the season. Can Alvarez carry that momentum forward into a solid 2014 campaign?
Comparing Alvarez to Eovaldi and Fernandez is like comparing night and day. While Fernandez and Eovaldi throw upwards of 95-96 mph on average, Alvarez's effective sinker travels a mere 93 mph on average. While Fernandez warps space and time with his pitches and makes hitters look foolish, Alvarez has struggled to flummox hitters with any of his arsenal of stuff. Remember, this is the same pitcher who, in 2012 with the Toronto Blue Jays, somehow threw over 180 innings and struck out only 79 batters. Alvarez has both clear strengths and clear flaws in his game, and it is unlikely that his ceiling will improve a whole lot further from now on.
But whatever Alvarez is, it can still be effective in the majors. Alvarez's 93 mph sinker induces a lot of ground balls, and he has begun relying upon it more and more as his clear and obvious best pitch. Last season, he abandoned the changeup, one of his previous calling cards on the mound, in favor of an almost strict diet of fastball-style pitches. Alvarez turned to either his two-seamer or, more rarely, his four-seam fastball on a staggering 75 percent of pitches thrown. Even Eovaldi, who was considered very top-heavy and fastball-dependent, only went to his four-seamer 71 percent of the time. Like him, Alvarez lives and dies by his best fastball, and that pitch is completely different from Eovaldi;s heater. Last season, Alvarez got a ground ball on 56 percent of both his classified two-seamers and four-seamers, which makes you feel like the two pitches are closer to one than they are separate entities. Meanwhile, hitters swung and miss on just 11 percent of those two-seam pitches that he used most often.
Alvarez is no strikeout guy, but the pathetic 9.8 percent rate he tossed out in 2012 at least improved. Alvarez returned to his 2011 levels of strikeouts, posting a 13.6 percent strikeout rate and getting 6.5 percent of his pitches to end in swings and misses. Both those numbers are not by any means good and are likely at the bottom of the majors, but neither is the sort of replacement-level, questionable Major Leaguer work that he put up the year before.
The last bit of improvement from last season was in the home run department, where Alvarez looked absolutely comfortable in the spacious confines of Marlins Park. He will almost certainly allow more than two home runs in 2014, but the ground ball rate combined with the long distances should make for good home run suppression numbers for a pitcher who needs all the help he can get.
But Marlins fans should be concerned about a few trends. That ground ball rate that was elite in 2011 and 2012 with the Blue Jays has dropped to just "good" in 2013. In 2012, his two-seamer was inducing grounders at a 61 percent rate; in 2011, that rate was at 59 percent. It may not be much of a drop, and his overall ground ball rate in 2013 was merely at 2011 levels (53 percent), but the numbers are trending down and Alvarez is already a pitcher surprisingly prone to home runs. With a guy who has such little strikeout capability, he desperately needs to remain in the upper echelon of ground ball skill.
The Marlins are expecting numbers around the 4.00 ERA mark, and that seems reasonable given the likely regression in home runs. It is important to keep an eye on just how much the strikeouts stick around next season for Alvarez; a drop back into 2012 levels would be disastrous for his chances at a successful campaign, even if Marlins Park does a better job of holding the ball in the stadium than Rogers Centre did. It will also be interesting to see how Alvarez's ground ball numbers, his bread and butter and what is keeping him in the league, trend in this new season. Has he been able to repair the slider that he developed a few years ago into a reasonable strikeout tool, or will he continue to have to pound fastballs at a close-to-80 percent clip to keep hitters grounded?
What do the projection systems expect? The average of the three systems suggest a 3.96 ERA and a 1.6 WAR season in 180 innings. Unlike Eovaldi, Alvarez has already posted a 180-innings-plus season in the majors, so provided he remains healthy and avoids the shoulder problems that held him out for half a season last year, he should be able to tough out another long campaign. If he succeeds, he may be able to turn into the sort of pitcher Chris Volstad was supposed to be, a ground ball expert a la Derek Lowe who keeps hitters off the bases and prevents them from leaving the yard. However, there are still questions that need to be answered, and Alvarez could still turn into what Chris Volstad actually became: a homer-prone ground baller who does not induce enough grounders and has no other tools in his bag of tricks. A full and successful 2014 campaign will go a long way towards disproving the latter.
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