The Miami Marlins have an ace on their starting staff in 2015, but he will only be there for half of the time. Jose Fernandez will be asked to carry the ace banner as he did so well in his rookie year in 2013 and the early part of 2014, but after Tommy John surgery for a torn UCL, he will only return half of the way into the season. Before then, Miami will have to turn to the rest of its ragged rotation to figure things out.
One of the big components of that rotation is Henderson Alvarez, who acted like an ace for most of last year in carrying a sub-3.00 ERA in a surprising breakout 2014 year. Alvarez's gameplan is simple: ground balls, lots of weak contact, and limiting baserunners from walks. He accomplished that last year, but he did so with some help from a defense that was not generally considered good. Can he continue doing that in 2015?
1. Jose Fernandez
2. Henderson Alvarez
3. Mat Latos
4. Jarred Cosart
5. Dan Haren
Additional Depth: Tom Koehler, Brad Hand, David Phelps, Aaron Crow
Minor League Depth: Justin Nicolino, Jose Urena, Adam Conley
The Marlins will look for Alvarez, along with Latos, to help carry the top of the rotation for the team before Fernandez returns. Last year, Alvarez surprisingly put up a 2.65 ERA and improved on some of his underlying numbers as well. He experienced a small uptick in strikeout rate thanks to hitters whiffing more on pitches outside of the strike zone. The still-low 14.4 percent strikeout rate was the second-highest he had ever posted in a season behind only his rookie year. He channeled that rookie season in terms of dropping his walk rate as well, as hitters chased more and more of his low out-of-zone pitches with the expanding strike zone.
The one thing Alvarez did not take from his years in Toronto was the home runs. In his second year in spacious Marlins Park, Alvarez posted a low home run rate again, with just a 9.5 percent home run per fly ball (HR/FB) rate. Being at home definitely helped his numbers; Alvarez's HR/FB rate was at 7.7 percent in Marlins Park versus 11.6 percent elsewhere. Still, this is a far cry from his rates from his days in Toronto on the road, so he may have improved a bit in this category as well. Alvarez's ground ball rate has fallen down to a steady 54 percent rate over the last two years.
In many ways, Alvarez's game is the perfect example of the Marlins' philosophy of strike-pounding and ground balls. The Fish do not advocate strikeouts and would prefer to emphasize on avoiding walks and using the defense if needed to produce outs. Last year, Alvarez's defense produced a lot of outs; the Fish had a defensive efficiency (outs made over total chances) of about 72 percent with Alvarez's grounders versus 70 percent (one of the worst in the league) on total ground balls. While it is possible Alvarez provides easier ground balls on average, the difference is not likely to be as large as it was last season.
Photo by Steve Mitchell, USA TODAY Sports
As you can see, the projection systems are not expecting a return to prominence for Alvarez, and you can understand part of the reason why. His success in his last two seasons came in large part due to suppressing home runs, and it seems difficult to believe that he can continue to do that. Since 2012, only 13 of the 121 qualified starting pitchers tossed fewer home runs on a rate basis than the 0.67 per nine innings that Alvarez had last season. Of those guys, six were pitchers with at least 50 percent or better ground ball rates, which bodes well for Alvarez. But some of the others were just elite pitchers who are good at everything, like Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, and Anibal Sanchez among others.
Yes, ground balls never turn into home runs, so Alvarez begins with a nice edge. But we cannot forget that he also has a history of poor home run rates. At the same time, we cannot equally forget that he now pitches about half of his games at Marlins Park, which is one of the best homer-suppressing parks in the game. A lot of these things should even out, and the systems are only seeing a slight bump overall in the rate, up to 0.77 homers per nine innings tops. However, that rate bump is equivalent to two extra homers in 180 innings, which is worth almost three extra runs on average.
What explains the rest of the ERA bump? Most of the explanation is that Alvarez's ERA should not have been that low to begin with. He had a 3.58 FIP last season and the more predictive ERA retrodictors like SIERA and xFIP saw a performance that should have yielded an ERA around 3.60 or 3.70. Miami's defense played better behind Alvarez and stranded more runners than is likely to continue; only five qualified Major League starters since 2012 have posted a strand rate better than Alvarez's 79.3 percent last year, and four of those five had above average or better strikeout rates.
Overall, these expectations see a pitcher closer to a 3.81 ERA. That might sound disappointing to Marlins fans expecting another step up for the soon-to-be 25-year-old Alvarez, but his skill set lends itself to a lower ceiling than most pitchers. Right now, without the strikeouts, Alvarez projects as a 2.2-win pitcher in 170 innings pitched. This is by no means bad, but it may be disappointing for Marlins fans expecting more from the starter.