Thursday afternoon, I got it in my head that I wanted to write about a Blue Jays starter. At first, though, that Blue Jays starter was Kyle Drabek. I find Kyle Drabek's struggles to be interesting, so I thought a post about Kyle Drabek would be interesting, but then I started digging and I didn't know where to go. Kyle Drabek didn't throw any strikes. Like there were literally zero strikes, it was kind of amazing. He got sent down to triple-A and he didn't throw any strikes there either. He should throw strikes.
But it was in the course of my Kyle Drabek research that I happened upon the major league numbers posted by a 21-year-old who also threw out of the Blue Jays rotation. I already knew about Henderson Alvarez, because baseball is my job, but I didn't know how terrific Henderson Alvarez was, because I'm not very good at my job. And because I'm also naturally presumptuous, I figure you might not know how terrific Henderson Alvarez was, either. So what I'm going to do here is put him firmly in the spotlight.
It would've been enough for Henderson Alvarez to just hold his own. At the start of the year, he wasn't listed among Baseball America's top ten Blue Jays prospects (Drabek was No. 1), and he was assigned to Dunedin. Dunedin plays in the Florida State League, and if you don't know the Florida State League very well, that's single-A ball. Advanced single-A, but single-A nevertheless. Henderson Alvarez started 2011 in single-A, and wound up making ten starts in the majors.
As implied earlier, though, he didn't just hold his own. He excelled, to a remarkable degree depending on the numbers you look at, and he did that at 21. He was the fourth-youngest player in the American League, and he got more action than the three guys his junior. Players don't often do what Alvarez did.
Alvarez's sexiest statistics are probably 40 and 8. Those were his strikeouts and walks, and when you put them together, you get a neat little ratio of 5.0. A decent ratio would be 2.0, and a good ratio would be 3.0. Alvarez came in at 5.0, and even though we're dealing with a tiny denominator and this is probably unsustainable, it looks really good on the screen.
Yet I can one-up those statistics if you allow me to act like a dork. You probably know about xFIP, or at least have some casual understanding. It's a pitcher metric based on strikeouts, walks, and ground balls, which are the three things over which a pitcher has the most control. Here are the two full-time starters whose xFIPs last year were just ahead of Alvarez's:
Here are the two full-time starters whose xFIPs last year were just behind Alvarez's:
Good company. Alvarez might not be quite that good, but he made a hell of an impression at a very young age.
About those ground balls - Alvarez didn't generate a ton of strikeouts, but he kept his xFIP (and his ERA) down by throwing strikes and getting grounders. He posted one of baseball's higher ground ball rates, and he did it mostly off of a low- to mid-90s sinker. Thanks to data systems we have in place, we can look at this and observe that Alvarez's fastball had more sink than almost anybody else's. The grounders followed. Alvarez also generated grounders with his changeup, which is his second pitch.
And he has a good changeup. Before we leave the sinker behind, though, I should show you what it looks like. You might be curious, or you might not know that you're curious.
Velocity, movement, and a lot of strikes. Alvarez's fastball is a strength.
I mentioned that the changeup is his second pitch, where a lot of young righties come up from the minors with fastballs and sliders. One of the other incredible things about Henderson Alvarez is that he did what he did with an incomplete repertoire. Alvarez has a slider, but it isn't that great, and making it better is a point of emphasis this spring. If his slider improves, Alvarez could really be something. If it doesn't, well, he's already shown that he could be something, over a limited but meaningful sample.
A year ago, Henderson Alvarez was going to single-A. This year, he's breaking camp with the Blue Jays, and he'll get on the mound before he turns 22. Over a full season, he's probably not going to rank between Tim Lincecum and C.J. Wilson in xFIP again. Those other guys are really good; Alvarez was probably good and lucky. But over a full season, he should be highly effective, because his numbers are wildly encouraging, and the stuff is there to back them up. Henderson Alvarez is a weapon, and he's newer to the Earth than Jesus Montero, Brett Lawrie, and Eric Hosmer. Henderson Alvarez is a talent.