While Henderson Alvarez is a household name in Toronto today, things were very different at this time last year. After taking a huge step forward in 2009, Alvarez produced a 1.46 WHIP, 0.80 HR/9, and an ugly .300 opponent average in 2010, taking the shine off his respectable 4.33 ERA. Expectations were extremely low entering 2011. After ranking 9th and 5th in the system entering 2010 by Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America respectively, Alvarez fell to 16th according Baseball Prospectus in 2011, and Baseball America dropped him outside their top 10.
Despite his diminutive size (listed generously at 6’1”, 200 lbs), Alvarez has seen his fastball improve significantly over the past two seasons. After sitting 87-90 mph only two years ago, Alvarez now pitches at 92-94 mph with his four seam fastball, averaging an impressive 93.3 mph and touching 97 mph. Alvarez relies upon the pitch heavily, throwing it a staggering 62.9% of the time in 2011. In addition to the four seam fastball, he also works a two seam/sinker hybrid pitch at a similar velocity. By taking only 1-2 mph off the pitch, Alvarez is able to generate an additional 2-3 inches of vertical break with significant arm-side run. Despite accounting for only 10.1% of his pitches thrown in 2011, the pitch is an important piece of his repertoire, as he utilizes it to induce weak contact, particularly against right handed batters.
To back up the fastballs, Alvarez features two offspeed pitches that he throws aggressively in two-strike counts. In 0-2, 1-2, 2-2, and 3-2 counts, he throws the pitches 40%, 34%, 56%, and 48% of the time respectively. The changeup is at least a plus pitch, and could realistically be argued as plus-plus. The pitch comes out on a plane similar to his fastballs, but the bottom falls out as it approaches the plate. Beyond the vertical break, the pitch has excellent velocity separation, averaging 85.1 mph in 2011, roughly 8-9 mph slower than his fastballs. His slider has flashed some potential, but Alvarez is still very inconsistent with the pitch. That inconsistency is directly measureable in velocity, as his sliders were clocked as high as 88 mph, and as low as 80 mph in 2011. The pitch has nice two plane movement, but with the slider accounting for only 10.6% of pitches thrown in 2011, Alvarez is obviously not fully confident with it just yet.
Scouts and executives had seen the potential in Alvarez –- he was invited to represent the world in the MLB Futures game on two occasions -– and in 2011, the numbers finally began to agree with the scouting reports. Alvarez began the year on the minor league disabled list, which delayed his season debut until early May. As part of his “rehab assignment”, Alvarez made two starts with the Dunedin Blue Jays, before receiving his official assignment to Double-A New Hampshire. He made 14 starts with the Fisher Cats, having the best statistical season of his career. In 88 innings with the club, Alvarez pitched to a 2.86 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 6.75 K/9, 1.74 BB/9, and 1.64 GO/AO. This newfound success earned him a promotion to the Blue Jays, where he not only held his own, but actually excelled. Alvarez made 10 starts with Toronto (totaling 63.2 innings), with a 3.53 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 5.65 K/9, 1.13 BB/9, and 1.75 GO/AO.
His 63.2 innings exceeded MLB’s restrictions for rookie eligibility, and therefore is no longer considered a prospect. Regardless, Alvarez still received extremely high praise from Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus. In each of his team top 11 prospect articles, he ranks the organizations Top 10 talents 25 and under. In the Toronto Blue Jays edition, Alvarez ranked 4th on the list, behind only Brett Lawrie, Travis d’Arnaud, and Jake Marisnick.
With no major offseason additions to the rotation, the pressure will be on for Alvarez to maintain or improve his 2011 performance moving forward. Projection systems are cautiously optimistic with Alvarez. On the low end are the PECOTA and ZIPS systems, who expect a 5.50 ERA/1.51 WHIP and 4.65 ERA/1.33 WHIP respectively. While on the surface these seem unreasonable, they’re more understandable when considering how the systems make their determinations. Alvarez has a total of 152 innings above A-ball in his career, so while he had success in 2011, the history isn’t there. Obviously, he’s going to be heavily penalized by systems that rely upon historical data, such as these two.
On the other end of the spectrum are RotoChamp, MLB.com, fan submitted data at FanGraphs.com, and my own personal projection. The biggest commonality amongst the four projections is an improvement in the strikeout rate to varying degrees. Alvarez’ stuff is too good to have a league average (or worse) strikeout rate, and while he’s never been a big strikeout guy, he’s also never had a K/9 below 6.25 at any minor league level. Alvarez is also only turning 22 in April, so there is clearly room for improvement. The other point the four projections agree upon is a slight decline in walk rate. An aggressive demeanor will always keep his BB/9 low, but as Major League hitters see Alvarez for a second or third time, they may hold back on the offspeed pitches just a little bit more.
Alvarez has carried last season’s success through to Spring Training, pitching to a 1.64 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, and 8.18 K/9 in his 11 official innings (not including a dominant 7 inning, two-hit shutout performance in a minor league game on Thursday). A year ago, Henderson Alvarez was starting in High-A Dunedin. Now, with the fourth spot in the rotation all but formally locked up, he appears due to make his season debut in front of 50,000-plus fans on April 9th –- the home opener against the Boston Red Sox. With playoff baseball in Toronto still more of a dream than a reality, there’s no bigger game on the schedule for Blue Jays fans than the home opener, especially given this year’s opposition. One year can change it all.