The Miami Marlins lost their top starting pitcher, Jose Fernandez, to a terrible elbow injury early in the 2014 season. The team needed a number of their other pitchers to step up their games this season to deliver a competent rotation. One of those pitchers was Henderson Alvarez, who finished the season with one of the better years that a Marlins pitcher has had.
Alvarez's success was always going to come from getting ground balls and avoiding the long ball, and his presence at Marlins Park has made that a lot easier. This year, Alvarez posted a near identical ground ball rate compared to the 2013 campaign, but his home run rate naturally bumped upward compared to last year's anomaly (two homers allowed in 102 2/3 innings).
So Alvarez had to do something different this season to keep pace with a good debut season in a Marlins uniform. He did just that in 2014, as Alvarez maintained the adequate strikeout rate he flashed last season but cut the walks from 6.5 percent in 2013 to 4.3 percent this past season. Doing both of these things was crucial to Alvarez's development. He proved that the ugly 2012 season was more fluke than reality by staying at these acceptable strikeout rates. No pitcher has a better ERA / FIP combination among the ten lowest strikeout rates in the last two seasons, but Alvarez needed to bump the whiff rate just a spell to stay marginally competitive.
It is his work in terms of walks that has brought him to the next level, and the reason why that walk rate has dropped is because of Alvarez's commitment to the Marlins' strategy of pounding the strike zone. Alvarez was fifth in the league in zone percentage this past season, having put up a 54.7 percent rate. His pounding the strike zone bought him and the Marlins fewer long counts and plenty of strikes to deal with.
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Alvarez had some excellent individual performances too. Early on, he remained among the leaders in complete game shutouts. He went the distance last season in the final game of the year, the epic no-hitter in which the Marlins abated in the crime. This season, he started things off with a two-hit shutout of the Seattle Mariners four starts in, then he followed that up shortly with a seven-strikeout gem against the New York Mets. Alvarez was one of only three Major League starters this year to throw three shutouts in the year, with Adam Wainwright and Rick Porcello being the other two pitchers. Both of those guys ended up being cogs in important playoff machines.
Alvarez is building a strong reputation as a pitcher who hits the strike zone, but can do so with a two-handed fastball and mediocre secondary offerings primarily. According to Pitch F/X classifications and FanGraphs' interpretation of the data Alvarez got the third-most value out of the two-seam fastball in the game, behing Dough Fister and Dallas Keuchel. Supposedly there were only six starters who were 10 or better runs better than average with the two-seasomer, and Alvarez was squarely centered in the middle of that pack a 16 runs better than average overall. Alvarez's sinker was worth 1.3 runs per 100 pitches thrown.
All of this is to say that it seems that Miami got a very intriguing player from the Toronto Blue Jays trade. In 2012, the Fish signed Mark Buehrle to a four-year contract, the last of which would have been this upcoming season. Alvarez pitches simiarly to Buehrle, but has the repertoire more built towards that type of success. He gets grounders, he pounds the zone, and he has finally learned to miss just enough bats to get strikeouts. The 2.65 ERA led to a four-plus win season according to Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement (WAR) calculation. He was "only" on an average, two-win starter over the course of the year with FanGraphs' formulation.
A hedge between the two puts him firmly in the three-win range. That is a successful step, and indeed Alvarez was nearly rewarded with an All-Star berth along the way. After injuries and late starts pulled a number of pitchers, Alvarez got to compete in his first and only All-Star Game so far. That is something for Marlins fans to be proud of.