Miami Marlins starter Henderson Alvarez has gotten some attention this past week as the often underappreciated third wheel of the Marlins' new and exciting rotation. Everyone notices Jose Fernandez's greatness, and Nathan Eovaldi has gotten better and continues to impress, but Alvarez's simplistic game plan of ground balls and weak contact flies under the radar. But it turns out Alvarez is a fascinating player, and part of the reason why is his last eight starts. In those eight starts, he has thrown three complete-game shutouts, including the no-hitter he spun in the final game of the 2013 season.
In the last three-plus seasons, since the start of 2011, only 13 pitchers have thrown four or more shutouts, including Hernandez. The list is a who's who of dominant starters in baseball, including Cliff Lee (seven shutouts), Clayton Kershaw (six), and Felix Hernandez (five). It also includes marginal pitchers like Jason Vargas (five) and Bartolo Colon (four), so they are not all winners in the purest sense.
But what do these pitchers (minus the eternal anomaly R.A. Dickey, who was not included among the 12 other pitchers) have in common with Alvarez, and does the occurrence of these high numbers of shutouts mean anything? Let's take a look at a variety of things that Alvarez does best and see if any of these pitchers share these traits.
Deep Into Games
The reason for Miami's desire for contact is because it tends to get pitchers deep into games. Alvarez as of late has done a better job at going into further innings than any Marlins starter, including Jose Fernandez. However, the numbers do not bear out a significant difference between the starters; from 2013 to now, Alvarez has averaged 6.13 innings per start, which is just behind Fernandez (6.32) and a bit ahead of Eovaldi (6.06).
Almost all of the pitchers in the sample each finished off more innings than Alvarez on average. The lone exception was Anibal Sanchez, who ended in a virtual tie with Alvarez at around 6.1 innings. The group average, not weighted for innings, was 6.62 innings, or essentially 6 2/3 innings per start. Even Vargas, the worst starter in the bunch, ended going longer than Alvarez.
Pitches Per Inning
But this includes Alvarez's poor 2011 effort, and Miami is also concerned about another aspect of contact: possible "stress-free" innings. Innings that last longer could lead to more stressful performances, so more contact can induce faster outs to avoid this problem. Alvarez averaged 14.7 pitches per inning, which compares favorably to Fernandez (15.1) and Eovaldi (16.5 since 2011).
Other shutout-inducing pitchers since 2011 have fared worse than Alvarez. The group averaged 15.3 pitches per inning, and Alvarez would have performed second- or third-best compared to these 11 pitchers. Only the hyper-efficient Cliff Lee, Bartolo Colon, and Clayton Kershaw really compare. Still, the decreased load per inning is a plus in favor of Alvarez.
Batted Ball Count
Alvarez lacks the strikeouts that other pitchers have, which is part of the reason why his workload per inning is so low. The Marlins' emphasis on contact lends itself to that, as does Alvarez's ground ball style. No other pitcher came close to matching Alvarez's number of contacted balls in play (including home runs). Alvarez allowed 80 percent of his batters faced to put the ball in play or over the fence, more than any of the other starters in the sample. Only Colon came close at 79 percent. The sample group averaged 73 percent of those balls in play.
It is nice to note that, at least in terms of balls in play, Alvarez had the most grounders among all of these starters. In fact, the majority of the sample was either average to fly ball-leaning, with only Adam Wainwright and Felix Hernandez leaning heavier on grounders. Alvarez allowing the most contacted balls is probably a negative, especially in light of marginal innings per start efficiency, but at least his contact is probably lighter than the other starters.
We have all made it very evident that the Marlins attack the strike zone with impunity. Alvarez is among the better zone attackers in this sample, as only Lee and Colon work more often in the strike zone. But the entire sample hit the zone at a better than average rate as a group, with only four pitchers hovering at or below the league average. The sample average was at 51.5 percent, and Alvarez brushed past that rate with ease.
Alvarez's only two major advantages were his zone rate and his effective rate of pitches per inning. The issues we saw were that he allowed too much contact compared to more efficient pitchers and that those pitchers were able to go deeper. It is likely that the contact Alvarez allowed still led to more hits, more homers, and longer innings, as evident by the poorer ERA results as well.
The biggest problem, however, is likely going to be his lack of strikeouts. Alvarez's contact lead to an average number of walks compared to the rest of the sample, but the other pitchers got two-plus more strikeouts per inning than Alvarez with similar or worse home run rates. The average strikeout rate for a leader in shutouts is not the sky-high elite marks of a Jose Fernandez, though Kershaw, Lee, and others still have those rates. The average still requires that you remain efficient outside of balls in play.
As expected, the best pitchers with the most shutouts still get more strikeouts than Alvarez, even if it leads to an increased number of pitches. Those sure-fire outs on strikes led to better results than balls in play, and those advantages outperformed the benefits of shorter innings. Alvarez's profile is so extreme that it is difficult to find comps for him in this set. The best examples were guys like Colon and Jason Vargas, who worked in the zone and did not strike out that many. But neither would be expected to get this many shutouts at this stage in their careers given their expected ERAs, so it is possible that they may be more fluky inclusions into this sample, much like Alvarez.
Throwing three shutouts in eight starts was an amazing accomplishment for Alvarez, but it is not something that should be expected further. The sheer amount of contact that Alvarez allows does reduce his load per inning, but the chances of him being efficient every time on the mound and upping chances of a shutout are less likely.