When the Toronto Blue Jays brought right-handed starter Henderson Alvarez to the big leagues, most pundits agreed that his live arm and control were elite but his inability to miss bats might trouble him. The early returns were good as the Jays eased Alvarez into big-league life with starts against the Oakland A’s and Seattle Mariners. A home run-dogged outing against the Rays followed but another run of successful starts cleansed the palate.
Results-wise, things look pretty good for Alvarez. Trouble lurks below the surface as Alvarez’s lack of an out-pitch could be catching up to him.
Henderson Alvarez is a big league pitcher because of his velocity and control. His walk rate is half the league average in 50 innings, an always-welcome habit. His big, sinking fastball helps him induce ground balls by the boatload, more than 54% in his short stint in the big leagues.
The biggest problem Alvarez will face is the long ball. Like many sinkerball-type pitchers, pitches left up in the zone tend to get hammered and leave the park. The comparison may not inspire a great deal of confidence but consider Brandon League. Radar gun-busting fastball, ground balls for days and the “occasional” long ball. Alvarez’s control gives him the advantage as a starting pitcher over the Mariners closer.
Without an out pitch, Henderson Alvarez has no margin for error. In his last start - Saturday against the New York Yankees – all it took was a defensive miscue and a hit by pitch before Alvarez was in a very tough spot. Runners on the corners, nobody out, slugger at the plate. A ground ball would be nice, a strikeout even better. Unfortunately for Alvarez and the Jays, the slugger was Alex Rodriguez and he took the Jays rookie deep for a three-run homer. A disappointing outcome that is difficult to pin entirely on Alvarez.
When I mentioned this during the last live stream, a commenter on Drunk Jays Fans made a happier comparison for Henderson Alvarez: mid-period Roy Halladay. Halladay became obsessed with efficiency for a good chunk of his career, eschewing strikeouts for “pitching to contact” and maintaining a low pitch count. Too much of a good thing, some might say. Halladay later realized the value of the strikeout and simply re-introduced Ks to his arsenal.
After a solid 2007 season in which Halladay struck out fewer than six batters per nine innings, he was reborn for the 2008 year. Halladay increased his strikeout rate from 15% in 2007 to 20.9% in 2009, raising his K/9 from 5.55 to 7.54. His ground ball rates decreased but so did his ERA, runs allowed and just about every other number you’d want to mention, save his innings pitched which rose to 246.
With decreasing whiff rates on a start-by-start basis, the league is coming around on Alvarez. Both times Alvarez faced a team for the second time, his swinging strikes have gone down. He’s playing a dangerous game; a game big leaguers will adapt to in a hurry.
Baseball life hands pitchers lemons on a regular basis. Without the ability to make his own lemonade, the Jays right-hander is at the mercy of the BABIP Gods. Alvarez must work on his swing-and-miss pitch if he expects to thrive at the big league level. Man cannot live on ground balls alone. For Henderson Alvarez and the Toronto Blue Jays, an out pitch is a matter of survival.