I and others made a big deal this past offseason about the Tigers lack of organizational depth when it came to starting pitchers, if you don’t count Drew Smyly/Rick Porcello. Drew Smyly is now firmly ensconced in the Tigers bullpen mix and the team really couldn’t do without him – unless some significant trades were made to fill out the bullpen. Shawn Hill has been pretty awful in Toledo, Casey Crosby has not made the necessary adjustments to get major-league-quality command and when the Tigers need a 6th starter they’ll be relying on a minor league free agent that flew completely under everybody’s radar: Jose Alvarez.
Alvarez was pretty good in Toledo prior to getting the call, and he has been pretty good in his first 2 starts for the big league club. Nonetheless, “projections” are awfully hostile: with the ZIPS rest-of-season forecast calling for a 6.03 ERA. Why? Well, Alvarez is still young – a 24-year-old rookie this season – but he was set adrift by the Marlins after a pretty poor year and a half in AA for them in ’11 and ’12. Prior to that promotion to AA, he had been mostly good in a number of seasons in the low minors in the Boston and then Florida organizations. In AA his strikeout rate plummeted to 5.1 per 9 and his ERA rose into the mid-4s. If you look at the numbers (and that’s obviously all that a system like ZIPS does) you’d definitely get the impression that Alvarez just hit the wall, a point at which he wasn’t able to get by with mediocre stuff.
Dave Dombrowski clearly has moles all over the Marlins organization, which makes them not only his favorite trading partner but also his favorite source for scrapheap finds like Alvarez. Somebody, I don’t know who, must have passed on the word to DD that Alvarez was pitching better than those numbers looked and that he’d be worth a flyer. And, well, without knowing exactly what caused Alvarez to struggle in 2012 all I can say is that something must have changed. As for exactly what…?
One Alvarez scouting report prior to the trade that sent him out of the Boston organization (and prior to his struggles in AA) listed him as featuring a straight 4-seam fastball, a deceptive changeup and a curveball that was a “work in progress”. Alvarez was seemingly a complete or near-complete unknown when he was traded for Jeremy Hermida after the 2009 season – coverage of that trade mentions only a few numbers from Alvarez with no other details and considered the “haul” for Hermida to be underwhelming. One MarlinManiac headline was “Marlins Toss Hermida to Red Sox for Scraps“. ‘Nuff said. I’ll copy in the scouting reports referenced in that piece, from Frankie Pelliere of FanHouse: “Jose Alvarez Scouting Summation: Feel pitcher. Sat 86-89 MPH with the fastball. Avg command, good feel for loc./ reading bats. Spots avg 74-77 MPH curve. Gets too much plate, doesn’t know when to go out of the zone. Fringe stuff across board.” As of 2011, baseball-intellect.com had Alvarez listed as the Marlins 14th best prospect (a grade C guy) and mentioned only that he featured 3 pitches and decent command. After the 2011 season, Baseball America did list him as having the best changeup in the Marlins organization.
There is sadly not a lot out there about Alvarez floating around, so let me try to sum up those tidbits about Pre-Detroit Jose Alvarez: He threw 3 pitches and only one was good. His fastball wasn’t very fast. He threw too many strikes and got hammered when he missed in the zone. Frankly, sounds a lot like Adam Wilk but without the exceptional minor league numbers.
But… flash forward to this year? Alvarez doesn’t throw 3 pitches, he throws 5. In addition to the average curve and good change, he throws a slider and he throws 2 fastballs and not just 1. Exactly which fastballs he throws seem to be the subject of some confusion. According to brooksbaseball.net, he throws a four-seamer and a sinker. According to Fangraphs Pitch/FX he throws a two-seamer and four-seamer. According to John Wagner of the Toledo Blade it’s a four-seamer and a cutter. Now, I don’t know how reliably pitch distinctions like this can be identified from the booth – but if we can rely on that Fangraphs Pitch/FX division (whether or not it is actually a 2-seamer) the “moving” fastball is very good even if the straight fastball is bad. What you might also notice is that his fastball is faster than advertised – averaging 89.4 according to Fangraphs and very nearly 90 according to brooksbaseball.net. The changeup and the secondary fastball have been his only plus pitches through his first 2 starts, but the existence of that slider is probably important – since that very good change is something Alvarez only throws to righties. Oh, for the last point: Alvarez hasn’t been (in his two Detroit starts) throwing an excessive number of strikes: according to Fangraphs he has thrown in the zone barely 40% of the time and his swing rate is pretty low. Guys have been taking borderline pitches against him rather than teeing up on ugly pitches in the zone. For a point of comparison, Doug Fister (another guy with a bad straight fastball, bad slider, average curve and good two-seamer and changeup) has hit the zone 48% of the time over his career. Anibal Sanchez throws about 50% in the zone.
So… maybe somewhere along the line Alvarez gained a little velocity. Maybe he added a couple of pitches – one of which is actually good. Maybe he learned to stop throwing so many bad strikes. The small sample numbers certainly make it look like he did all three. This is actually important… if Alvarez is basically the slightly worse Adam Wilk that the Marlins thought they were losing, then that predicted ERA of 6.00 sounds likely and Alvarez’ 2013 numbers sound like a guy pitching over his head. If he’s not that guy at all anymore, then maybe he can hold a 4-ish ERA in the bigs and keep Detroit in games. Whether or not any other Tigers starters have issues that cause them to miss starts, I’m not at all confident in Anibal Sanchez at this point – so there’s a good chance that Alvarez is going to be needed well beyond tonight’s start against LA. He’s also 24 and under team control for years to come – so he could continue to be valuable for years to come.