Henderson Alvarez Not Missing Enough Bats

A common theme for a pitcher who has a below average strikeout rate is that he is intentionally pitching to contact in hopes of preserving a pitch count and working deeper into games.  It is an approach that has its merits and many have thrived with the strategy – Roy Halladay as the prime example.

I always knew Henderson Alvarez posted impressive ground ball rates but I have to admit I did a double take when I looked up his stat page today.  In fact it made me downright nervous.  In 63.2 impressive MLB innings last year Alvarez performed admirably as a pitch to contact groundball pitcher.

He had a solid 53.5 ground ball rate and while his K-rate was nothing to get excited about it was at least respectable at 5.6 K/9.  Overall a 3.53 ERA was well supported by his peripherals – 3.97 FIP and 3.38 xFIP and the expectations for the kid were high heading into the new season.

Well there is pitching to contact and there is just an inability to miss bats and I think the latter is more prevalent in the case of Henderson Alvarez.  While he has improved his ground ball rate (57.3%) his strikeout rate has become alarmingly low at 2.6 K/9. 

I can honestly say I cannot remember another pitcher in the major leagues with such a poor strikeout rate.  I searched the Fangraphs database to look for the lowest K/9 since 1990 and came up with a terrible name, though memorable for anyone who knows the Detroit Tigers.

Nate Cornejo, the man with the golden 5.41 career ERA had the lowest K/9 at 2.96 in over 300 MLB innings.  If you have ever watched this man pitch, it was never a sight to behold, he was terrible and the fans let him know it whenever they could.

Another prominent groundball pitcher Aaron Cook checked in with a 3.83 K/9.  Neither pitcher has the overall arsenal and command that Henderson Alvarez does but it just goes to show how awful that 2.6 K/9 looks.

Henderson Alvarez overall stat line for 2012 is 72 IPs, 76 hits, 17 BB – 21 K to go with a respectable 3.75 ERA and 1.29 WHIP.

However his peripherals do not support such a low ERA and there are red flags littered all over his stat sheet.  Given the low strikeout rate and high homerun rate (1.5 HR/9) it is not surprising his FIP is 1.68 runs higher than his ERA at 5.43 and his xFIP is not much better at 4.52. 

A ground ball pitcher will typically have slightly higher BABIP than a fly ball pitcher as ground balls have a higher chance of finding a hole than something hit into the air.  Another bad sign is Alvarez has been downright lucky on balls in play with an unsustainable BABIP of .258.

He has been unlucky on his fly balls leaving the yard with his current HR/FB ratio at 18.8% however for his young career his rate has been unusually high (17.1%) over 135.2 total MLB innings.

According to pitch run values his fastball (which he uses 67% of the time) has been getting hit pretty hard this season (negative 3.8 runs) and the changeup that was so effective for him in 2011 (positive 5 runs) has been his worst pitch this season (negative 7.4 runs).

In fact only his slider (relied upon 13%) has been a positive run value pitch in 2012. 

Given Alvarez intentionally pitches to contact he will always be a pitcher who gives up his fair share of contact but for the current season his overall contact rate is a ridiculously high 91.4% while his swinging strike rate is a ridiculously low 4%.  Last season those numbers were 86 and 6.4 respectively.

For any pitch thrown in the zone hitters are making contact an unbelievable 95% – let that sink in for a second. 

This is a disturbing trend in the wrong direction for a guy most fans are completely enamoured with.  Not to sound like an alarmist but there is absolutely no way Alvarez can survive in the big leagues given his current approach, let alone thrive, especially in the AL East.

Big league hitters are too talented and too many things can go wrong when 90% of your pitches are being put in play and only 4% are being swung and missed on.  Henderson Alvarez of 2011 was intriguing and his peripheral rates were just good enough given his crazy ground ball tendencies.

Without some major changes the current version of Alvarez might be a pitcher who is either sent to the minor leagues, converted into a relief pitcher or out of baseball in two years.  I love his heart, his attacking style and flair for the dramatics but I’d trade all of that for a 6.0+ K/9 and sub 85% contact rate.

He is still very young and has the time (and fastball) to make the necessary adjustments so it is too early to write him off or think he is a finished product.  But it is also good to be realistic and evaluate actual performance to get a good idea of what to expect going forward.

Hopefully this is but a small hiccup on the path to a solid career.

READ MORE: State of the Blue Jays Rotation – Drew Hutchison rising, Kyle Drabek falling.

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