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The road to Alvarado

Jose Alvarado is announcing his presence with authority.

Tampa Bay Rays v Cleveland Indians

Before this spring, probably most of you were not talking about Jose Alvarado. Coming into 2017, Jose Alvarado was barely an organizational top-30 prospect. He was a 21 year old, left-handed reliever with a walk rate of 18% in High-A.

The perception of what Jose Alvarado is, and what he could be, is changing in a hurry.

The Past

Jose Alvarado came to the Rays as an International Free Agent from Venezuela at 17 years old. After two seasons playing in the Venezuelan Summer League and two seasons in Rookie ball, the stout lefty showcased an arm that threw lightning. And, as with lightning, no one knew just where it would land.

In 2013, Alvarado posted his best numbers in his minor league career. Starting 13 games in the VSL, Alvarado pitched 45 13 innings, posting a strikeout rate of 27.8% and a 10.8% BB% (his best BB% in his minor league career), and an 1.97 ERA and a 3.08 FIP.

However, his walk rate would rise again the next year, and after his 2015 season, Alvarado was moved to the bullpen for his debut season with Single-A Bowling Green.

There, he dazzled in his first stint in a relief role, pitching in 10 games with Bowling Green. In 24 23 innings, Alvarado increased his K% to a career best 33.7%, and posted sterling 1.46 ERA and 2.91 FIP.

After getting promoted to High-A Charlotte, Alvarado regressed. His strikeouts fell, and those walks kept going up. He wasn’t a disaster in Charlotte, but he was still a very wild reliever who walked way too many batters. However, a fastball that can touch 100 MPH and a potentially plus curve will get you a lot of chances in this sport.

Eric Longenhagen at Fangraphs had this to say about Alvarado (who he ranked 28th in the Rays system):

Still just 21, Alvarado has monster stuff from the left side with a 95-99 mph fastball and comfortably plus curveball. It’s a late-inning two pitch combo, but Alvarado has potentially fatal command issues. He was added to the 40-man over the winter and could debut this year if he can throw even a passable ratio of strikes.

The Present

Jose Alvarado started 2017 in the Venezuelan Winter League, and posted this line:

9 13 IP, 5 H, 4 BB, 13 K with a 0.964 WHIP.

That WHIP is of note, as this was the very first time in Alvarado’s professional career that he posted a WHIP under 1. This is also of note as our first sign that the 2017 Jose Alvarado has taken a new and very exciting next step.

After his strong Winter League performance, Alvarado headed to Double-A Montgomery. He would pitch just 11 13 innings before getting his call to the Show, so we are firmly in Small Sample Size alert territory. That being said, Alvarado built off his winter showing, posting another WHIP under 1 (0.794), 33.3% K%, and a walk rate down to 11.9%.

Alvarado was still walking a lot of batters, but not nearly to the level he had been up to this year. How much of this improvement was simply noise, and how much of it was actually a real, tangible improvement?

On May 3rd, just over two weeks ago, Alvarado got the call to bypass Durham and head straight to the Rays. This was an aggressive move, and probably one done more from desperation than with an eye toward strategic prospect development, as the Rays have a dearth of major league ready LHP options once Xavier Cedeno went to the DL.

Alvarado made his debut immediately in the May 3rd game against Miami. It didn’t go well. In one inning he gave up two hits and three earned runs, with no walks or strikeouts. These would be his last earned runs given up to date.

Since his debut, Jose Alvarado has gone 6 13 IP, 0 ER, 2 K, and given up just 2 hits and, most importantly, 0 BB.

In fact, the thing that has jumped out to me most about watching him over these last few weeks has been how under control he has pitched. He just does not look like a reliever who has serious control and command issues.

Alvarado has posted a 97.83 MPH average pitch speed on his 4-Seam Fastball, with a average perceived velocity of 98.47 MPH. To put that into comparison, Aroldis Chapman’s average perceived velocity is 98.49 MPH.

He has used his fastball about 75% of the time, and has generated a nice 66.7% GB%, pounding the bottom of the zone. Alvarado is not just a fastball pitcher, and has quite an effective breaking ball to go with the heat.

Fangraphs writes that Alvarado throws a curveball. BrooksBaseball lists that same pitch as a slider. Watching him throw it, it looks like it has quite a bit of 12-6 (or maybe 11-5) action. So, I’m not really sure what to call it, but he mixes it in well and has been able to throw it for strikes. That is a big time weapon to change eye level and speed to get batters off balance and not keyed into his 98+ MPH fastball.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Cleveland Indians David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Future

This year Jose Alvarado has pitched 28 innings so far between Winter League, Double-A, and the Rays. He has limited his walks, he has produced ground balls, and he looks the part of a late inning relief arm.

Obviously, his walk rates will rise (i.e. he will eventually walk somebody in the majors). The key to Alvarado’s future success will be to what level will those walk rates regress. A lefty with a blazing fastball and a knee buckling breaking ball can absolutely live with a 10-12% walk rate, but how many Ks go along with it will determine exactly how great Alvarado could become.

Aroldis Chapman’s career BB% is 11.5%, while Fernando Rodney’s is 11.4%. Chapman Ks 42.4% while Rodney Ks 22.8%. Where will Alvarado ultimately fall on this continuum?

It would be satisfying to say there was a simple change that Alvarado has worked on in the offseason leading to his improved 2017 numbers. A switch of his delivery, or his placement on the pitcher rubber, or even some work on his eyes. But we don’t know if that’s the case.

Perhaps the answer, though, isn’t quite as clear cut. Perhaps the answer lies in a young man getting one year older, with one year more experience, and becoming more mature.

The Rays have a history of success harnessing electric raw stuff from wild pitchers. Alvarado certainly has the electric stuff and at 21 it is possible that his best innings are ahead of him. If Hickey and Co. can help him develop into a complete pitcher, he will can grow into a major force in the Rays bullpen.