The Miami Marlins will lean on Henderson Alvarez to help hold up the top of the rotation for the team in 2015, at least until Jose Fernandez returns from injury. The Fish want Alvarez to repeat his game from 2014, when he posted a 2.65 ERA and put up a strong year for a surprisingly competitive Fish team. Alvarez's game is ideal for the Marlins' philosophy of pounding the strike zone and using the defense while avoiding walks, but how has he fared as a Marlin and can he continue? In the first of our series of Pitch F/X scouting reports, we will use data from Brooks Baseball and MLB Gameday Pitch F/X information to formulate a report on a pitcher's repertoire. We start today, with the oddest pitcher on the Marlins roster.
For this report, we will use data from the last two seasons for Alvarez, encompassing his time as a Marlin.
Pitch F/X: The Basics
You can see that Alvarez's primary repertoire consists of a two- and four-seam fastball, primarily using the sinking two-seamer, and one of the more unique changeups in the game. The two-seamer is the most apparent weapon, one that is used to work ground balls as often as possible. Both fastballs are thrown surprisingly hard for a ground-baller; Alvarez's 94 mph sinker is probably the fastest in the game.
The changeup is another unique weapon in the sense that it does not work a traditional changeup. As Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs and Juan C. Rodrigugez of the Sun-Sentinel have pointed out, Alvarez throws a "power changeup" hitting close to 90 mph on average. This became a broadcast talking point last year, but it seemed unlikely to be the truth. However, Alvarez confirmed it himself:
Typically, pitchers strive for a 10-mph differential between their fastball and change. Alvarez used to be among those. During a game against fellow Venezuelan Felix Hernandez in 2012, Alvarez took note of his changeup velocity.
"I told myself, 'He throws his changeup 90-91, I can do the same thing,'" said Alvarez, whose fastball per PITCHF/x averages 93.6 mph, just 4.6 mph faster than his average changeup velocity. "From that time I started throwing it harder and it's given me good results. It's a hard changeup, but if it has a lot of action it's good, too…The change and the sinker are my two biggest strengths. Without them I'm not a pitcher."
When the data and the pitcher himself agree, we have to assume the reality of the event. While Pitch F/X may misclassify some of his changeups as slower two-seamers and misjudge the velocity of both pitches, Brooks Baseball's reclassifications do Alvarez appropriate justice. They have his average changeup at a whopping 89.8 mph. Both the two-seamer and changeup boast excellent downward vertical movement.
The third pitch is a slider which is still a work in progress, but is available to him. For the time being, we will exclude his eephus curveballs and noted cutter just because they are barely used.
Pitch F/X: Performance Metrics
The effectiveness of the results on Alvarez's pitches are not impressive. As expected, his two-seam fastball and changeup are key to his gameplan. Those were the pitches that were hit the least hard out of them all last season, and that might be a direct result of his effective ground ball rate. The fastball was most representative of Alvarez's ground ball rates for his career, while the changeup got extreme rates, particularly against lefties; left-handers knocked nearly 70 percent (!) of balls in play on the ground against Alvarez.
Placing the ball in the zone was not an issue for Alvarez either. Both of his fastballs, which accounted for nearly 69 percent of his total pitches, landed in the zone for called strikes almost as often as they went out for balls. The control over those pitches was on full display these last two years. The changeup was a little less effective in that regard, in part because so many of the changeups in the zone were likely swung at. While Alvarez's four-seamer landed in the zone often, it was only hacked at 40 percent of the time. On the other hand, any juicy changeup caused a swing on Alvarez, as hitters offered at 57 percent of them. Given that they whiffed 26 percent of the time, this is not a bad thing,.
Overall, missing bats remains Alvarez's issue. Neither fastball is good at it, thanks in part to Alvarez working primarily low in the zone. The changeup is his best weapon, but it was below average for an out pitch. The slider needs a ton of work, as it neither lands in the zone often nor is a pitch that fools hitters effectively.
Photo by Steve Mitchell, USA TODAY Sports
As always with these reports, I will offer grades for each pitch using the traditional 20-80 scouting scale. The scale is normalized to have 50 be average and every 10 points above or below that represents one standard deviation.
Two-seam fastball (60): Two years ago, I gave Alvarez's sinker the same grade. The pitch does not appear to be a whole lot better or worse. It is getting fewer ground balls than it used to, but still working effectively as a standard offering low in the zone. He has good control with the pitch and is getting the right results, as it is not getting hit too hard compared to his other offerings. It is his bread and butter and a necessary workhorse pitch for him.
Four-seam fastball (45): The same issues plague his four-seamer as they did two years back. It's fast, it hits the strike zone, but batters do an excellent job against it. It is possible the reason for this is location; Alvarez may be tossing the four-seamer too low in the strike zone too often, thus not utilizing its velocity to get whiffs.
Changeup (60): This is where he has made the most progress. The changeup was once a normal, everyday pitch that did not stand out. Since that time in 2012 when Alvarez made the switch to a power changeup, the results are dramatically better. He is getting a lot of ground balls on it, it is darting more horizontally away from lefties, and this may be resulting in more whiffs. It is just jarring to see a changeup moving at cutter or two-seam speed, and it is Alvarez's best chance at an out pitch.
Slider (45): The pitch is better than it was a few years ago, but as far as sliders go, it just is not that effective. It has a high whiff count for Alvarez, but it is not close to average for a slider. Sinker pitchers usually do have an accompanying slider to dominate same-handed hitters, but Alvarez is the polar opposite in that he has an increasingly dominant changeup instead. The good news is that it should be a little easier to work on improving a slider.