Jose Alvarado had himself a mini-breakout in 2018. In his first full season with the Rays, he threw 64.0 sparkling innings, with a 2.39 ERA, 2.27 FIP, and 3.15 xFIP, for 2.0 fWAR, tops among Rays relievers and eighth among all MLB relievers in 2018.
He also played first base, tortured hitters with a 30.4 percent strikeout rate, and even got some Jeff Sullivan love over at FanGraphs. It was a good year!
There’s a chance Alvarado could be even better though. Here is Alvarado’s overall pitch mix for his entire career, per Brooks Baseball:
Alvarado Career Pitch Mix
The burly lefty certainly prefers his two non-breaking pitches, but even with well over 10 percent usage of both his slider and his curve, we’re far from a Chris Archer situation, but is there something to unlock?
If we zoom in a bit, here’s Alvarado’s pitch mix on the first pitch of at bats throughout his career, again per Brooks Baseball:
Alvarado Career Pitch Mix, 0-0 Count
Here, the lack of pitch mix is stark. He throws heat over 90 percent of the time, only leading off 37 of the 391 batters he has faced in his career with an offspeed offering, and well over half the time, the hitter can be looking for the sinker.
Part of this is likely due to Alvarado’s one weakness: his walk rate. Pitchers are naturally more comfortable with their main offerings being the leadoff pitch. That’s true of any pitcher across the league. Even more so the younger the pitcher. But with Alvarado now entering his third season in the pros, and being a mature age-24 by the second month of the season, it’s time for him to mix up his offerings a bit and see what can come of it.
The slider, in particular, could make for a filthy 0-0 offering. Take a look at one more breakdown of data from Brooks Baseball:
Alvarado Career Pitch Mix, Outcomes
Alvarado’s slider gets a swing over half of the time, and it is his pitch with the second-highest strike percentage of any in his arsenal (ironically, his curveball is first).
A good portion of that likely has to do with the fact that Alvarado uses the pitch when he is ahead in the count, and the hitter is desperate, but it’s impossible to know if that’s a bit of a chicken or the egg situation without trying it out a bit more in 2019.
If we double back to the 0-0 count, the sample is far too small to really know anything significant, but notice the slugging percentage on his leadoff sinker offerings (.522) is far higher than his overall slugging percentage allowed in his career to date (.265) — in fact it’s almost twice as high.
Hitters (most notably Mookie Betts last season) are no longer just willing to sit back and take a first-pitch fastball in the modern game. There was a time when Wade Boggs would just sit and watch a perfectly placed fastball down the middle, almost as an unwritten agreement between hitters and pitchers. But hitters have broken that pact, and pitchers are starting to get punished for those “get me over” opening offers. All must adjust.
Alvarado was surrounded by pitchers who learned this very trick last season. Vidal Nuno (19.8 percent), Sergio Romo (12.4%), and Steve Cishek (10.3) were all among the league leaders last season in 0-0 sliders, and while none of those three are guaranteed to be around the Rays major league roster in 2019, it means that Kyle Snyder and the Rays pitching staff is comfortable with this type of approach as well.
Alvarado made impressive strides in 2018, but tinkering with his pitch mix just a bit — especially early in the count — could be the key from jumping from the “Jeff Sullivan is writing cute articles about you on FanGraphs” tier to the “pitching in the All-Star Game” tier; a tier I believe Alvarado fully capable of reaching.