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Jose Alvarado can spin a breaking ball

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The traditional pitch classifications don’t really work for what he’s doing.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Atlanta Braves Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

As the slog of a 162 game season takes its toll on players, you tend to see guys compensate in different ways. It might mean shortening their delivery, changing a release point, or changing their swing. Players get tired. Bodies change. Players adjust.

Jose Alvarado is one player who has tinkered with his mechanics, with a creeping change taking place over a few months.

Alvarado’s release point has undergone a re-haul, and it really shows in the horizontal plane from April to September. The dropping horizontal release point can either mean a left-handed pitcher is shifting to the third-base side of the mound, or that his arm is coming in higher over the top.

A look at the vertical release point, which has trended up throughout the season, seems to point to the latter option.

Digging through past games and pulling a picture confirms that idea.

The picture below is Alvarado pitching in the opening series against the Red Sox in March.

This picture is from September 8.

Notice that the arm slot is definitely higher.

Why does that matter? Well, the over-the-top slot might be giving Alvarado more of a 12-6 movement, rather than 11-5 movement, on his breaking stuff. From Brooks Baseball, I’ve layered on the months for each plotted point of average curveball movement.

That’s from the catcher’s perspective, and there’s a general shift from the left to the right as the season’s worn on, suggesting that the change in motion may have to do with the shifting arm slot.

Let’s back up. Alvarado’s various breaking pitches are very hard to tell from one another. His slider, curveball, and even that one random “cutter” dot in there are all glued together with similar movement.

Alvarado is blessed with tightly wound breaking pitches. The curve drops vertically a bit below average for a curve, but comes in very hard (85 mph, two standard deviations above average per Brooks). The slider, when compared to other sliders, both drops more than the average, and is also very hard (88 mph). The high velocity of each, and the similar movement could make one wonder if they’re even properly considered the same pitch.

I spoke to Alvarado last weekend in Cleveland and he told me, speaking in Spanish, “The team really encouraged me to work on my sinker when I was sent down to Triple-A. They noticed I got the hang of it quickly, and they encouraged me to work on another pitch. I’m not just a 4-seam/curveball type of guy anymore. When teams see me come in, they know now that I throw a sinker, a 4-seamer, a curve, and a cutter.”

I asked Alvarado what the average velocity on his cutter was and he replied, “It usually sits at 88-91, sometimes 92.”

What we have here is a pitcher with the ability to manipulate the spin on the ball, and to vary his breaking pitches.

Let’s break down those pitches ourselves. Below is a graph using MLBAM pitch classifications that calls everything a curve. That’s not right. What in the heck does Alvarado actually throw?

The sinker is clump A. The 4-seamer is clump B. Both of those have velocities in the mid-to-high 90s.

Clump C is his cutter that plays like a slider, and D is his other curveball that’s like a traditional curveball (except faster). Does that make sense?

Brooks Baseball calls C and D a slider and a curveball for Alvarado, respectively, and while both have the same horizontal movement, the curve carries a harder vertical movement and clocks in at 85 mph on average. The sliders that Brooks picks up (clump C) averages 88 mph.

Judging by the speeds that Alvarado told me, I have to assume that’s what he calls his cutter.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Boston Red Sox Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Brooks actually called four of Alvarado’s pitches cutters, with those pitches averaging 90 mph with the same horizontal movement as the slider/curve, but with a bit less vertical drop. Based on Alvarado’s description of what he throws, let’s just fold that in with the “cutter/slider” pitches, in group C.

Let’s concentrate a little more on that pitch. If Alvarado really is throwing a cutter, I have to say it’s very unique to see one thrown from an overhand angle. You typically get pitchers that stay on the side on the ball and are simply able to cut it horizontally. Yet in Alvarado’s case, the break comes vertically. The over-the-top arm angle might be the cause.

The pitch above clocked in at 88 mph and falls right in the range of the cutter that Alvarado mentioned. MLBAM picked it up as a curve, and Brooks Baseball called it a slider.

Now notice this cutter thrown by Cole Hamels earlier in the year. It’s the typical cutter that many of us have grown accustomed to. Side of the ball grip, lower arm angle. There’s some vertical movement, but the relatively-more-pronounced effect is horizontal.

I say “relatively,” because actually, Alvarado’s cutter moves more than Cole Hamels’s in every dimension.

Alvarado and Hamels, Cutters Compared

Pitcher Velocity (mph) H-Movement (inches) V-Movement (inches)
Pitcher Velocity (mph) H-Movement (inches) V-Movement (inches)
Jose Alvarado 88 -1.4 -1.2
Cole Hamels 88 -0.5 4.3

There’s a lot going on with Alvarado.

The Rays have a very unique guy on their hands who is able to manipulate the same pitch in multiple different ways, creating different breaking balls, all of which are good, and all of which are very hard.

As the Alvarado has brought his arm slot higher, his curve has morphed to more of a vertical pitch. At the same time, he’s worked in a cutter/slider offering that stacks up favorably against some of the best cutters/sliders in the game.

And he’s only 23. Jose Alvarado is a rising star in the league, and a reliever to watch.

Thanks to Dominik Vega for the gifs and the stills.