The Toronto Blue Jays dealt Henderson Alvarez, the starting pitcher opposing the Nationals tonight, to the Miami Marlins last winter. Alvarez, 23, came with a respectable amount of promise to South Beach. For example, Baseball America listed both his change up and fastball as league-best pitches in the minors, and Keith Law -- at a similar stage of Alvarez's development -- agreed.
Breaking down the trade this past winter, however, Law came to a different conclusion. He stated that Alvarez's...
"... fastball has backed off a little and he's been unable to keep his changeup down in the zone, while he's never developed an average breaking ball, all of which has dropped his outlook from potential No. 2 starter to probable reliever. The Marlins can and should give Alvarez another year or so in the rotation to see if any of those issues resolves with experience or a new coaching staff, but as it stands now he doesn't miss enough bats to be a major league starter"
Alvarez threw over 187 innings in the big leagues last season, posting a strikeout rate of 9.8% (bad) and walk rate of 6.7% (good). As Law predicted, Alvarez didn't miss many bats, and his 123 FIP- (meaning, he was 23% worse than the average major league pitcher by FIP) partially reflects those troubles. It didn't help that 18.1% of Alvarez's fly balls left the yard, which was second most in the league. According to ESPN, his home park actually played pretty neutral, so one couldn't pin all the blame there. Indeed, 15 of his 29 home runs were surrendered on the road.
Fast forward to 2013. Michael Barr of Rotographs noted early this month that between July 4 and August 7, Alvarez pitched to a 3.13 FIP and enjoyed some success by more traditional metrics like wins and ERA. Although Barr's look was more fantasy-inclined, it's easy to see some parallels between his analysis and Law's. Barr pointed out that Alvarez, as Law observed, wasn't striking out a ton of hitters. Since that was true, Barr's reasoning went, there must be some other sort of statistical "good" to offset what is usually a warning flag.
The "good" was Alvarez's home run rate. Over his first seven starts of the year (Alvarez was injured earlier in the season), the Venezuelan gave up zero home runs. More appealing than that -- at least as far as long-term positive signs were concerned -- was the righty's mid-90's velocity. Yet Barr rightly tempered enthusiasm, writing first that Alvarez's home run rate was bound to go up, and also that his line drive rate was already sitting sky-high. He concluded that
If batters continue to square up balls at this rate, they’re going to start to go places where people aren’t standing. Couple that with the likelihood that a few balls leave the yard and I think I’m just going to stay away.
Six days ago, Dakota Schmidt of Fish Stripes checked up on Alvarez. The young hurler, he noted, has given up a few home runs since early August. Schmidt observed that cavernous Marlins Park actually wasn't part of Alvarez's sudden home-run stingy performance.
So what gives with the dingers? In 2012, Alvarez's fastball showed a 19.5% HR/FB rate over 121 at bats -- pretty high. According to Brooks Baseball, not one home run has been hit off the fastball this season. However, our sample is just 40% of the at bats it was last year, and
His command of his fastball may be one reason why he's seeing better results on the pitch. Compare his 2012 fastball location...
So far, he's working the corners enough, and more importantly, is staying out of the middle of the zone. Good fortune on contact is also to thank, since batters are putting wood on his pitches 6% more of the time (85.8%) than league average (79.6%). Part of his performance is certainly attributable to the sample size measured, but his location suggests that there's perhaps some real (if ultimately unsubstantial) steps in the right direction.
I mentioned in the lede that this profile looks similar in part to Bruce Chen. Since he was the last PDB, I've felt a bit like a broken record. But there's another record that Alvarez will break if he keeps going.
Among full-time starters with less than a 15% strikeout rate and at least 60 innings pitched in a season since 2007, no hurler ever has had as low a HR/FB rate (2%) as Alvarez. Both other commentators and I have outlined a few reasons why this probably won't keep up, but it's an interesting pursuit nonetheless. Although it's unlikely in modern baseball that the Marlins could flip Alvarez for greater value because of this anomalic (not a word) performance, you never know.
As for the Nats, Alvarez may get results like Chen, but his stuff is not unlike hard-throwing Nathan Eovaldi, last night's starter (and his results, come to think of it, too). Hopefully the end result will also be the same.