Let the Debate begin…..Henderson Alvarez


Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE

We are going to try something new to this space but not new to sports: angry beer-throwing smash-mouth sports debating. It is the oldest tradition in sports; in fact, it can feel like it is the only tradition in sports.

We are going to christen this ship with a debate on whether it is time to send Henderson Alvarez back to the minors. This feces throwing debate turned out to not be the no-holds bar blood-bath that we envisioned, and for that we apologize from the deepest place in our hearts. We plan on making this a regular feature on the site, so, hopefully next time the training wheels will fall off. For now……….

Point- David Schecter

Henderson Alvarez debuted in 2011 at the age of 21 and since then he has pitched a total of 251 innings in 41 games, 31 of which were pitched this season. Over these 41 games Alvarez has a 4.52 ERA, with 37 home-runs given up, 62 walks and 119 strikeouts. This translates into a +94 ERA, 1.363 WHIP, 1.92 SO/BB ratio and a 4.3 SO/9.  These are decent numbers that many teams could find useful as a 4th or 5th innings eater starter. God knows, that is what the Jays need. It is that need which made Alvarez a mid-season call up last season after only pitching 88 innings in 15 games of AA ball.

The Jays do need innings-eater pitchers, but they also need better pitchers and I can’t help but wonder if Alvarez has a lot more potential hidden away.  At the age of 22 the question is where would it be best for Alvarez to unlock his potential, as that is what would truly be best for creating a world-series quality Jays rotation.

Alvarez is a sinkerball pitcher who is home-run prone for a ground-ball pitcher, but what is really concerning is Alvarez’s disastrously low strikeout ratio over 9 innings.  Sinkerball pitchers can get away with lower strike-out ratio’s, however they still need to be able to punch out a batter every so often. Over 5 seasons in the minors Alvarez had a rate of 6.5 strikeouts per 9. If he qualified as a starter Alvarez would have been in the bottom 20 in the league in 2011 with 5.7 strikeouts per 9. This was a warning sign, but he was young and there was hope for improvement. In 2012 the bottom fell out and Alvarez had the league’s lowest strikeout rate per 9 innings among all qualified starters with 3.8 strikeouts per 9.

Let that sink in. He had the lowest rate among all qualified starters which includes all of the ‘qualified’ trash from rotations across the league. Alvarez certainly doesn’t need to get strikeouts like Brandon Morrow in order to be successful.  At the same time, to be successful and to realize his full potential Alvarez would be well served by improving upon the embarrassingly league lowest strikeouts per 9.

Some of Alvarez’s problems come down to pitch-type and some come down to pitch-selection. In other words he is an immature pitcher, which is fine for a 22 year old. Fangraphs has Alvarez throwing 71% fastballs, 9.9% sliders, and 18% change-ups in 2011 and 69.2% fastballs, 10.5% sliders, 16.4% change-ups, and 2.9% cutter in 2012. Alvarez fastball certainly hasn’t been sharp enough but he really needs to develop his secondary offerings to become a better pitcher. Batters need to be thinking about other pitches when they are facing Alvarez at the plate. Alvarez needs the pitches to set up his fastball. We knew this when we called him up from AA at 21 years old.

The hope was that he would develop his secondary offerings on the major-league level and quite frankly, it hasn’t happened. It is one thing for a pitcher to improve himself at the major league level, but as Alvarez has shown it is extremely difficult, especially for young pitchers, to develop new pitches at the major-league level. They need the space that the minor leagues provides in order to experiment. I think it is about time that we give it to him.

I realize that this may mean that a time will come where Alvarez must be seen as a reliever but that time is not here yet. He is a 22 year old pitcher who throws in the low-mid 90’s and can reach up for some extra heat. If he ends up a reliever then so be it, but the club shouldn’t be writing him off as a reliever at 22 when he has the potential to provide so much more value. This is especially true when the club is begging for more depth in the starting rotation.

We finally have a useful AAA club so lets start making use of it.

Counterpoint – Kyle Franzoni(s)

As David noted, Alvarez’s strength is in his fastball, which tops out at 98 MPH and generally sits in the low-mid 90’s. Also as David noted, Alvarez relies on his fastball way too often, throwing it close to 70% of the time while falling back to his secondary pitches (a slider, change-up, and an occasional cutter) too little.

However, despite reverting under the weight of a full major league work-load, Henderson Alvarez’s issues do not occur because of his meager secondary offerings. His struggles stem from an inability to throw strikes, particularly with his fastball. In 2011, his strike percentage on the fastball was an unimpressive 66.3%. In 2012, that number dipped further to 64.5%.

Alvarez’s inability to spot the fastball earlier in the count makes him rely on it too often as the counts run deeper, and prevents him from using his secondary pitches. This has proven a recipe for disaster, as David mentions, showcased by the fact that Alvarez surrendered 29 home runs in 2012, with a 25.8% ratio on HR/FB. It becomes easy to hit home runs in the major leagues when you can sit dead red. The slider is Alvarez’s true out-pitch, but he needs to be able to set it up properly. It is a nasty offering with which he gets a solid K rate, but cannot throw for strikes late in the count.

With all that in mind, giving Alvarez time in the minors to further develop his secondary offerings would be beneficial…if the Jays want to keep him as a starter.

However, while I think a minor league assignment is in the offing, the question comes if Alvarez would be better suited to learn to pitch in relief. His fastball would be more explosive when not tethered down by the need to save himself for longer outings. His slider also becomes a more enticing pitch, with batters having more pressure to swing at it as the game wears on.

The key pitch though will be in his cutter. If Toronto chooses to push him into a relief role, which will be more likely with the acquisition of a high-level starter, then the cutter is almost an essential pitch. Fangraphs has Alvarez throwing the pitch at nearly the same velocity as his fastball, but with a 100% ground ball rate. Granted, this is an offering with a small sample size, but if any pitch needs development, it is one that keeps the ball out of the stands.

As a reliever, coming into situations with runners aboard, having a solid ground ball pitch will make Alvarez nearly invaluable.