Wednesday 25 April 2012

Henderson Alvarez, Going Forward

I'll preface this by saying that (1) There's nothing wrong with having a guy who can go out there and eat a bunch of innings, get a whole bunch of groundballs, and not really ever have to worry about walking too many guys, (2) he's only 22 years old, and most certainly has room for improvement, and (3) I don't think I have much of a conclusion that I'm reaching for here since I don't think I'm smart enough to judge him as a pitcher, especially considering points 1 and 2, but I'm really starting to wonder about Henderson Alvarez' ceiling as a pitcher in the AL East when he can't generate any swings-and-misses.

Now, before we lose our heads here, our sample of major league games is 14 starts, good for 90 IP.  Over those 90 innings, Alvarez has accrued 48 strikeouts (4.8/9ip), while walking just 14.  There's obviously nothing wrong with that ratio of K's to BB's, and when he's getting the kind of groundball rates that he's put up over the small sample, he's been marginally successful (though he's hit 3 batters so far, which artificially deflates his BB number), and I doubt I'd even be writing this if the team would just score some fucking runs for him.

*So what's your point Grady?*

Frankly, I'm just sitting here at work, bored stiff since I've had literally nothing to do all day, and I got to thinking: Has anybody ever succeeded in the AL East missing so few bats?  Alvarez has a 4.4% whiff rate, down from 6.6% last year, which is astonishingly low for someone who sits around 93MPH and touches 96-97.  Obviously velocity isn't the only factor to consider when evaluating whether a pitcher can dominate top-tier hitters, and neither is strikeout percentage.  I mean, to this point in the season/ his career, Alvarez has been just fine, inducing infinity groundballs per outing, getting in to the 7th inning or better each time out this year. I struggle to believe that a 4.4% whiff rate is sustainable with that velocity and movement, and I don't even know if that's really a big problem in the grand scheme of things.  Obviously, a strikeout is better than a groundball (grounders don't always equal outs, and runners can advance on groundouts), but grounders are still pretty good as far as getting guys out, especially with the way the Jays have been playing defense so far this year. Still, based on his unusually high groundball percentage, I think we can come up with a few conclusions about what his future may hold as a pitcher, assuming that GB% is at all in the area of his true talent level going forward.

The first is that his homerun rate (20.8 this year, 16.9% career) will regress.  Playing in the AL East, and having half of his innings come in the Skydome should mean that his HR-rate will be higher than your average park-neutral groundballer, but it should still stay right around league average (12.5% last I checked).

Using this custom chart on Fangraphs as a reference, of qualifying pitchers in 2011, the only groundball-heavy pitchers (47.5+%) who posted HR-rates higher than 12.5% were AJ Burnett, Chris Volstad, Mike Leake, Brett Myers, Ricky Romero, and Fausto Carmona.  It doesn't take rocket appliances to figure out that a higher GB% equals a lower FB%, and a lower FB% equals fewer homeruns.  Having said that, Hendy's groundball percentage is absurd, and is probably very unsustainable.  There are usually only a handful of guys above 50% over a full season, so anyone getting above 60% is just an anomaly that will reset itself over time.  Still, groundball frequency has a lot to do with pitch movement and location, and Alvarez has lots of movement on his fastball(s), and seems to have pretty good command of the zone.

Next, we can compare swinging strike percentage and the related fastball velocities.  Again, fastball velocity doesn't automatically equal whiffs (and actually, might be pretty unrelated, though that link is about 4-seamers), but it is harder to make contact with a 100MPH fastball than it is a 90MPH fastball. Looking at pitchers with similar whiff rates over the last three years, (between 6.9 and 4.8%), the only really good comparables to Alvarez are Ivan Nova and Justin Masterson.  Both happened to have a GB% over 50, vFB in the 92-range, and whiff rates of 6.6 and 7.5% respectively.

Something that we have to keep in mind, when looking at Alvarez' profile is that he is now facing major league hitters, who aren't simply fooled by a mediocre breaking ball, or can't catch up with hard stuff.  Even the worst of these hitters can still hit a 94MPH fastball with movement if they know it's coming, which, to me, is the big problem with Alvarez. Alvarez isn't exactly polished as a pitcher, going from A-ball to a 21 inning salute in AA to being a full-time rotation dude.  He doesn't have anything that could really be considered as a knockout secondary pitch to compliment his (pretty good) fastball, so until that develops, we've found the meat of the (possibly non-)issue, and working on developing that in the AL East probably isn't a great idea.  The slider and changeup are definitely there (as in, they exist), but are far from polished.  We're seeing a lot of sliders in the dirt and a lot of changes missing way outside to lefties (and this could be by design, given the movement), but I'd say he's predominantly relying on the fastball, to the point where most batters are sitting on it in most counts and forgetting about the rest.

Basically, this was just a wordy, roundabout way of saying that Henderson Alvarez needs to sharpen up the slider and/or changeup if he's going to get more swinging strikes and be successful in the AL East.  There are too many good hitters (not to mention unfriendly ballparks) to allow that much contact.  If he doesn't evolve in to the type of guy who will miss a crap-ton of bats in the future, it's not like he becomes useless, and it really appears that Brandon Morrow is actively working lower in the zone (small sample alert), trying to induce more groundball contact at the expense of his whiff-rate and strikeouts, so this might just be something that the Jays' management is working on with their pitchers, making me and this post essentially useless.  It's not like Morrow wasn't really homer-prone though, which isn't exactly a problem someone with a GB% of >50% (i.e. Alvarez) should ever have.

I dunno, just thinking out loud.

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