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The Road to Alvarado: can the Rays lefty find his way back?

It’s about control, of course, but not just control

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Baltimore Orioles Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

Jose Alvarado came into the 2019 season as the Rays presumptive closer, possibly the team’s most promising reliever. He was fresh off a 2018 campaign which saw him deliver a 2.39 ERA (172 ERA+) and 2.27 FIP (3.15 xFIP) characterized by headlines like “By the Way, Jose Alvarado Was Impossible” from his fellow Rays employee, Jeff Sullivan, over at FanGraphs that offseason.

2019 was, in contrast, a disappointment. The 24-year-old lefty saw his ERA jump two and a half runs (4.80), with peripherals that suggested that it wasn’t just bad luck (4.18 FIP; 4.84 xFIP). He threw only 30.0 innings, as he suffered a pair of IL stints (as well as an extended absence to attend to family issues) one of which certainly seemed like a “you’re killing us too much to be trusted on our MLB roster right now” IL stint. On September 5, he was shuffled to the 60-day IL, ending his season after a loss he took on August 24, meaning he wasn’t around for the first taste of Rays postseason baseball since 2013 when it arrived.

However, the Maracaibo, Venezuela native is anything but a lost cause. If he can stay healthy (both mentally and physically) and fine-tune around the edges, it’s not at all hard to imagine the Road to Alvarado being paved in gold once again in 2020.

Let me start by stating the obvious: Alvarado must deal with his control problems. His walk rate spiked from an already high 11.0 percent in 2018 (league average for relievers in 2018 was 9.3 percent) all the way to an unpalatable 18.5 percent in 2019. Living with a 35th (or so) percentile walk rate is doable; doing so with a 5th percentile walk rate, not so much.

However, that’s something obvious and something the Rays will clearly hyper-focus on Alvarado with during the offseason.

What I want to discuss is pitch mix. Alvarado needs to mix up his pitches more on 0-0 counts.

(All pitch mix stats from here on out via Brooks Baseball.)

For his MLB career, Alvarado is a four-pitch pitcher, relying on a sinker (46.63 percent) four-seam fastball (27.62 percent), a slider (14.91 percent), and a curveball (10.85 percent). That’s a pretty solid mix, but check out the split on 0-0 counts:

Alvarado 0-0 Pitch “Mix”

Sinker Four-Seam Slider Curveball
Sinker Four-Seam Slider Curveball
65.03 26.28 3.97 4.73

Opposing hitters can basically sit on heat, and they can feel pretty good about sitting on the sinker specifically. He’s turning opposing hitters into the Astros without them even needing trash cans! (Timely humor!) As a result, opposing batters are slugging .690 off the 344 first-pitch sinkers that have been put into play against Alvarado in his career. Of course, that is counting only the balls in play, but these 0-0 sinkers are also coming across as balls more often than strikes, and the whiff rate he’s getting on them is lower than his overall whiff rate on sinkers.

Of course, this is probably related to that control issue I first mentioned. If Alvarado, or whoever is catching him, is concerned about walking the batter in the end, giving a free ball at the beginning has to be a worry. However, Alvarado has had, in what has to be noted is the tiniest of sample sizes, some success with his two offspeed pitches on 0-0 counts, particularly with the curve.

In 25 first-pitch curves, he has a 60 percent strike rate, with only one ball put in play (it was a single). In the case of his 21 first-pitch sliders, his ball rate is higher than his strike rate, but his whiff rate (19.05 percent) is through the roof. Being able to keep batters off balance by not letting them sit dead red would clearly have large benefits to Alvarado’s overall results, as it is not as though his over-reliance on first-pitch fastballs is as common as it used to be.

Let’s take a look at three pitcher comps for Alavarado and how their overall and first-pitch pitch mixes compare:

Alvarado Comps Pitch Mix, Overall

Pitcher Pitch 1 Pitch 1 percent Pitch 2 Pitch 2 percent Pitch 3 Pitch 3 percent Pitch 4 Pitch 4 percent Pitch 5 Pitch 5 percent
Pitcher Pitch 1 Pitch 1 percent Pitch 2 Pitch 2 percent Pitch 3 Pitch 3 percent Pitch 4 Pitch 4 percent Pitch 5 Pitch 5 percent
Jose Alvarado Sinker 46.63 Fourseam 27.62 Slider 14.91 Curveball 10.85
Brad Hand Fourseam 37.73 Sinker 21.33 Slider 23.97 Curveball 10.24 Changeup 6.73
Will Smith Fourseam 44.94 Sinker 8.81 Slider 29.96 Curveball 13.84 Changeup 2.42
Bellin Betances Fourseam 48.14 Sinker 0.12 Curveball 51.61 Changeup 0.13

Alvarado Comps Pitch Mix, First Pitch

Pitcher Pitch 1 Pitch 1 percent Pitch 2 Pitch 2 percent Pitch 3 Pitch 3 percent Pitch 4 Pitch 4 percent Pitch 5 Pitch 5 percent
Pitcher Pitch 1 Pitch 1 percent Pitch 2 Pitch 2 percent Pitch 3 Pitch 3 percent Pitch 4 Pitch 4 percent Pitch 5 Pitch 5 percent
Jose Alvarado Sinker 65.03 Fourseam 26.28 Slider 3.97 Curveball 4.73
Brad Hand Fourseam 36.66 Sinker 27.37 Slider 19.41 Curveball 11.94 Changeup 4.62
Will Smith Fourseam 48.04 Sinker 10.79 Slider 15.28 Curveball 23.74 Changeup 2.16
Bellin Betances Fourseam 48.85 Curveball 51.09 Changeup 0.06

Just look at how these other pitches keep their 0-0 offerings fresh. Even Betances (who, although right-handed is a decent comp in terms of size and wildness) a notoriously walk-heavy pitcher, isn’t afraid to mix it up on first-pitch offerings, basically splitting his pitches 50/50 down the middle.

The confidence Alvarado may need to get less predictable in 0-0 counts may need to come during a season in which he sees strides in terms of his control issues, but if he is able to do that, and then in turn change up his first-pitch pitch mix could unlock even another level to his game and help re-establish himself as the stud he was in 2018.