Henderson Alvarez‘ 2013 season debut looked like it would end as soon as it began. The Venezuelan right-hander had a very rocky first inning, but somehow he turned it around; not allowing any more runs in the next four innings pitched. Alvarez was acquired by the Marlins from the Toronto Blue Jays in last years’ mega-trade which sent Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson to Toronto with the Marlins getting Alvarez, Adeiny Hechavarria, Justin Nicolino, Jake Marisnick and Jeff Mathis. Nicolino and Marisnick are future prized prospects for the club, but Alvarez was a signing for now and he has shown he is ready, Alvarez last night went 5 IP, 3 ER, 5 H, 0 BB AND 2 K throwing 68 pitches 44 of them for strikes. That is the key, throwing pitches for strikes it made the difference in his struggles in the first inning and his success in later innings.
In the first inning Alvarez threw 23 pitches only 13 of them for strikes. I think there is a very simple explanation for this he was nervous and trying to get readjusted to the Major Leagues while facing a very good Atlanta Braves squad on the road, in the rain on a wet mound – no wonder he was wild. This was Alvarez’ performance in the first inning.
Also looking at the graph above all of the balls that were hit hard and for base hits were thigh high and often center cut, thrown right into Braves’ batters wheelhouses. A pitcher can’t have pitches like those and expect to not get hit around, especially by a team as good as the Atlanta Braves. The put out “7” was a slider thrown to get Justin Upton to pop up and the “1” low in the zone was a slider to induce a ground from his brother. As early as the rough first inning, Alvarez, Chuck Hernandez and Jeff Mathis were trying to pinpoint what the problem was and how to fix it, sliders low in the zone were a good place to begin.
In the first inning Alvarez threw 23 pitches only 13 for strikes that means that in the next 4 IP he would throw 45 pitches and only 14 balls, very impressive for a young pitcher. Something else very interesting is that in 68 pitches thrown Alvarez was only able to get one “swing and miss,” I don’t know what make of it but it is worth keeping an eye on. In the next four full innings, Alvarez was able to settle down and get his main two pitches, the sinker and the slider to work and he only allowed one baserunner at one point retiring nine Braves in a row. The graph below shows what pitches and where Alvarez threw them as well as the results of each pitch in the graph below.
The two graphs above show one very important fact that by in large after the wildness of the first inning Alvarez was able to work within the strike zone and more importantly establish the sinker in the lower half of the strike zone. Last night Alvarez faced 19 batters, recorded 15 outs, 7 of them ground outs and 2 strike outs. That is a good ratio for a player that aims to be a groundball pitcher. Groundball pitchers must pitch to contact especially one like Alvarez that hasn’t yet developed a credible third or fourth pitch that can be thrown for strikes and to get outs with.
What Henderson Alvarez showed last night is when he is able to throw strikes and keep the ball low in the zone he can work with only two pitches and that he can pitch to contact. But in reality two pitches, no matter dominant Alvarez looked tonight from the second inning on, is not enough. If I were Chuck Hernandez or Alvarez himself, I would look towards developing a changeup to fool right-handed hitters and a cutter to bust into intimidating left-handed hitters like Brian McCann. According to Brooks Baseball Alvarez does have a changeup in his repertoire but he chose to not throw it last night. Perhaps he will reincorporate it into his repertoire as the season goes on. A credible cutter would be a bonus and a nice surprise if he developed a pitch like that as his career unfolded.
In a very small sample size Henderson Alvarez was able to show what he can do if he is throwing strikes and keeping the ball low in the zone, he can be a very good groundball pitcher. But on the other hand he also showed what he can be when he is wild and not keeping the ball low in the zone, eminently hittable. That will be the struggle from now on for Mike Redmond, pitching coach Chuck Hernandez and what the fans and media will pay attention to: can Alvarez have control and command of his sinker? Can he throw the changeup and slider effectively? Finally can be he consistent and not get shelled once a month? These are the questions I will be looking forward to answer as the season unfolds.