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.

Comments (23)

  1. i have a ton of time for drew fairservice. great analysis.

  2. Yep. Awesome stuff. Great comparisons.

  3. True story: I photoshopped a zit on Alvarez’s cheek because it was way too distracting.

  4. Two words: Winter Ball. (*fingers crossed*)

  5. your positive vibe and optimism make reading your posts refreshing. keep up the good work

  6. i like the little sunglasses tie that comes out the back of his FRO

  7. “With decreasing whiff rates on a start-by-start basis, the league is coming around on Alvarez.”

    Where can I see the swinging strikes in that link? Can’t find em.

  8. I agree that Alvarez needs to continue to develop other pitches but I would argue that once he does, his sinker will probably be the SO pitch.

    Alvarez’ ability to induce ground balls is one thing that has and will continue to save him. Halladay is a great template because even on days without his best “stuff” his ability to get ground balls in double play scenarios helps him to avoid big, costly innings. Alvarez needs to find a way to get to those other pitches so he can set up his two dangerous out pitches (fast ball early in games + sinker late in games)

    Brendan Morrow is the perfect counter-point. He’s all about strikeouts and can’t get ground balls to save his life. His struggles as you pointed out (last week?) have come from his inability to get out of innings via any other means than strikeouts.

    Clearly the Jays would prefer if BOTH of these pitchers were able to strike a balance. I think they both have elite stuff. Alvarez as a 21 year old has shown phenomenal poise and I’m willing to bet that his off-season homework will be to work on developing into a guy who can reliably throw FB, Change, Sink, Slider. If he can do that I’ll be very pleased.

    • A sinker and a fastball are the same thing. Unless you’re differentiating between a 4 seamer and a 2 seamer for Alvarez, which Fangraphs doesn’t seem to think Henderson does.

  9. Dammit, now I have that stupid Top Gun song in my head…

    FLYYYYYY IIIIIIIINTOOOOOOO THEEEEE DANGER ZONE

    Keep up the good work writing, gents, GB has become a regular stop.

  10. Well, he doesn’t need much to move him into the “very good” category. Virtually no one can maintain a 15% HR/FB rate, and I don’t expect he will be an exception due to his good control. Even if it remains elevated at 12%, that’s an improvement over his current rate.

    I think you may be making too much of a declining whiff rate- this is simply too small a sample size to be drawing trajectories from.

    He should really throw his slider more – probably twice the rate he currently is. If you don’t practice, you won’t get better. But even on his current peripherals, he’s basically a better version of Jake Westbrook, who has been a very useful pitcher for the last 6 years or so. I’d love to see Alvarez move into Romero territory of 7+ K/9, but even if he stays where he is, he’s a useful starter.

  11. Last start, the rule seemed to be “Throw fastballs until they start hitting them.” Then they started hitting them, and he didn’t change gears quick enough. The slider or change has to show up in the second turn through the order. Also, he needs to throw the slider and see what happens. The runs allowed here don’t matter as much as those allowed next year. Learning on the job would be great here.

    Henderson Alvarez : Strike Thrower. That ability alone will make him stick in the bigs longer than David Purcey or Dana Eveland. Refining the pitch selection will determine if he sticks longer than Shaun Marcum or Ricky Romero.

  12. Basically, yeah. If he can up that strikeout rate a bit, while maintaining the GB% and low BB rate, we’d have an ace on our hands. I was at the Saturday game, and while it was nice to see him throw strikes at 95 mph and get groundballs, only 1 strikeout meant he was fighting a war against babip, and I think he gave up 9 hits in 6 innings.

  13. This contains 60% less scorn than the average Getting Blanked post.

  14. I’ve always believed that Halladay wasn’t pitching at 100% in 2006 and 2007. The velocity on his FB was down in those years and he had to sit out a few times with “forearm strains.” In 2008, the average velocity on his FB went up 1.6 MPH and higher strikeout rates followed that were more in line with the rates during the beginning of his career. The jump in K/9 this year can probably be attributed to the incredibly effective split change he developed (and the horrible nature of NL hitters).

    As for Alvarez, well if low BB/high GB guys like Doug Fister can be effective pitchers in this league, I don’t see any reason that the current form of Alvarez couldn’t either. A better out pitch, though, could make him elite.

  15. I wouldn’t say he’s entering the danger zone, it’s not like hitters are making contact on him like he’s Zach Stewart or something, both of his advertised ‘plus pitches’ the change up and 2 seamer/sinker whatever you want to call it have shown the ability to induce swinging strikes. Isn’t it possible he’s just too predictable with only a 2 pitch arsenal essentially right now and this could be the cause of hitters making better contact?

  16. I like “Man Cannot survive on ground balls alone”
    I think you should try to turn that line into a T-Shirt somehow.

  17. It’s not that Alvarez can’t strike people out, it’s just that he deplores fascism and loves democracy.

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