José Alvarado Is Finally Taking Control

Jose Alvarado
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday afternoon in Atlanta, José Alvarado asked the Truist Park grounds crew to make some adjustments to the mound, waving off the ensuing chirps from the Braves’ dugout. According to him, Max Fried, the Game 1 starter, had dug out a small pocket at the front of the hill with his delivery; the Phillies’ lefty wanted to avoid tripping over the hole and injuring himself.

Explained in such a way, it sounds like a reasonable thing to ask for. It would be hard to pitch if you’re constantly worried about stumbling and breaking an ankle; it would be much harder to pitch with a broken ankle. Yet even so, it’s not that often you see a reliever ask the grounds crew to touch up the mound. Alvarado, however, has developed a habit of making such a request. Clearly, he is someone who likes to feel in complete control.

It’s hard to blame him for feeling that way. Control is the one thing that has eluded Alvarado throughout his career — he’s consistently inconsistent, you might say. But when he does have proper control of his pitches, he can be an elite bullpen arm. That’s been the case for a long time. Back in 2017, when FanGraphs ranked him as the no. 28 prospect in the Tampa Bay Rays system, Eric Longenhagen praised his “monster stuff” but warned of his “potentially fatal command issues.” Four seasons later, when Alvarado was traded to Philadelphia, Eric once again remarked on his “elite-level stuff” but “frustrating control.”

José Alvarado’s Elite-Level Stuff and Frustrating Control
K/9 BB/9
2016 (A, A+) 10.83 7.01
2017 (AA, AAA, MLB) 10.47 4.10
2018 11.25 4.08
2019 11.70 8.10
2020 13.00 6.00
2021 10.99 7.60

Heading into the 2021 season, Phillies fans got to see Alvarado’s electric stuff up close and personal. He spent the winter in Florida working on a new strength and conditioning program and impressed in spring training with his blistering 100-mph sinker. It wasn’t long before the genuine possibility of him closing for the Phillies began to come up. Rays fans, I suppose, must have had a good laugh at all that. It was nothing they hadn’t heard before.

Lo and behold, 2021 was more of the same for Alvarado. His 10.99 strikeout-per-nine rate ranked among the top 20 qualified NL relievers, and his velocity continued to catch eyes, but the Phillies just couldn’t trust him to throw strikes. He walked 47 batters and hit seven more for a total of 54 free passes in 55.2 innings and allowed multiple baserunners in 30 of his 63 outings. For yet another year, Alvarado failed to take control.

As the 2022 season began, it looked like Alvarado was due to repeat that all too familiar pattern. Through May 25, he had made 17 appearances, pitching 13 innings, striking out 13 batters, walking ten and hitting one. Worse still, he was getting BABIP’d to death: Thanks to a .417 batting average on balls in play, he had allowed 16 hits and 11 earned runs. When a pitcher is walking so many batters, he can’t afford to allow that many hits. And so on May 27, the Phillies announced Alvarado was being demoted to Triple-A Lehigh Valley.

At the time, I thought Alvarado might be a victim of some complicated roster math. While his 7.62 ERA was astronomical, many of his underlying numbers looked better than they did the year before, and he seemed more deserving of a spot than certain other members of the Phillies’ bullpen. For instance: James Norwood, whom Philadelphia would DFA a few weeks later, had allowed 13 runs in 13.2 innings. Yet Alvarado had minor league options, while Norwood did not, and thus he could be demoted for a couple weeks without compromising the team’s depth.

It turns out that I might have been a tad too cynical. Alvarado’s demotion to Triple-A made a world of difference, and in hindsight, it was certainly the right move:

José Alvarado Before and After Triple-A Demotion
Pre-Demotion 17 13 11.77 6.92 0.69 0.417 7.62 4.04 3.83
Post-Promotion 42 38 15.16 3.32 0.24 0.3 1.66 1.19 1.59

Alvarado came back from Lehigh Valley a changed man. His BABIP coming back down to earth certainly helped, but more importantly, he found some much-needed control. In 38 innings, he struck out 64 batters — 43% of all the hitters he faced — and walked only 14, putting his walk rate right around league average. Average isn’t usually anything to write home about, but for him it represented a huge improvement, and with his lofty strikeout totals, an average walk rate was just fine. On top of that, Alvarado didn’t hit a single batter — a promising sign for a pitcher whose HBP tendencies have caused drama in the past.

In 42 appearances from June until the end of the regular season, Alvarado gave up only ten runs, one fewer than he allowed during the first two months of the year. His 1.66 ERA ranked seventh among qualified NL relievers, and his 1.19 FIP ranked second. By WAR, he was the fifth-most valuable reliever in baseball.

So how did Alvarado pull off this remarkable turnaround? Upon his return from Triple-A, he made several adjustments to his approach, but the most notable involved his cutter: he was throwing it harder, locating it better, and using it more often in even counts. In April and May, Alvarado averaged 92.5 MPH with his cutter (per Pitch Info). When he returned, he upped the gas, averaging 94.3 MPH with the pitch for the rest of the season. He also started locating the pitch more consistently against right-handed batters, to whom he has thrown it just over 50% of the time since June:

Jose Alvarado Cutter Heat Map in April and May

Jose Alvarado Cutter Heat Map from June-Sept

With higher velocity and improved command on the cutter, Alvarado became more comfortable deploying it in even counts, especially as the first pitch of an at-bat. Before his demotion, he threw a cutter in an even count 25% of the time, and on the first pitch just 17% of the time. From June onwards, he used it in more than 50% of the time in even counts and as his first pitch in 38% of plate appearances.

Leaning on his cutter in these situations helped Alvarado get ahead in the count more often. Before his demotion, he was ahead in the count on just 27% of pitches he threw and behind 28% of the time. Afterward, he was ahead on 31% of pitches and behind on only 25%. Moreover, because he was seeing more favorable counts, he was able to throw even more cutters, from 31.1% in April and May to 47.1% of the time after.

This alteration to his approach had tremendous results. But while his increased cutter usage has gotten much of the attention, his sinker deserves credit, too. Although he began throwing the pitch less often, it still played a critical role in his mid-season turnaround. In April/May, it was worth -5.2 runs (per Pitch Info); by that metric, no reliever in baseball had a less effective sinker over the first two months of the season. But from his return onwards, his sinker was 4.4 runs above average for the rest of the season, which ranked seventh among NL relievers in that time.

The biggest change Alvarado made with his sinker was throwing it in the strike zone more often. Take a look at the heat maps for the pitch from before and after his demotion:

Jose Alvarado Sinker Heat Map April-May

Jose Alvarado Sinker Heat Map June-Oct

Throwing more sinkers in the strike zone worked out well for Alvarado, because the sinker is the pitch he relies on most when he’s behind in the count. And by improving his sinker control, he was able to seriously cut down his walk rate — the thing he has always needed to do in order to be a trustworthy big league reliever. One might worry that more pitches in the strike zone, especially in hitter’s counts, would lead to more hits, but that has not been the case thus far. From June to October, Alvarado was generating a ton of swings and misses with his sinker, and even when hitters did make contact, it was weak and ineffective:

José Alvarado’s Sinker in 2022
Whiff% BA xBA
Pre-Demotion 12.5% .412 .373
Post-Promotion 23.80% .209 .227
Data from Baseball Savant

It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that Alvarado’s sinker is playing well in the strike zone. A pitch that tops out at 103 mph is going to be tough to hit even if the batter knows exactly where it’s headed. But his opponents have no idea what to expect when the ball leaves his hand. Take a look at this overlay of Alvarado’s sinker and cutter, and you’ll understand what I mean:

His motion for both pitches is identical. While he was at Triple-A, he adjusted his delivery to be more cutter-friendly, setting up further to the left side of the rubber now and letting go from a slightly higher angle, and making it nearly impossible to tell the two pitches apart until they’re already halfway to the plate. As similar as they look from the outset, one comes into the strike zone at 103 mph, and the other ends up way outside and almost 10 mph slower. But because Alvarado can now keep hitters on their toes with the possibility of a cutter at any time, he’s more likely to get away with his sinker right down the middle.

To sum it all up, Alvarado upgraded his cutter with increased velocity and improved command. Accordingly, he developed more confidence in the pitch and began using it more often. It helped him get ahead of batters early, induce more whiffs, and generate more strikeouts. It also helped him rein in his sinker, a pitch that had long been elite when it was working and disastrous when it wasn’t. The cutter has made him a better pitcher, and it’s not hard to see why.

Now, as with any article about a relief pitcher (especially an article about in-season improvements), I have to acknowledge the small sample size this all occurred in: 38 innings, which can only provide so much data by which to judge a pitcher. And it’s not like Alvarado hasn’t shown flashes of brilliance in small samples before. Yet as much as the rational part of my brain continues to remind me about the sample size, it’s hard not to be convinced by what I’ve seen from Alvarado this year. Not only can his improved performance be tied back to several specific changes to his pitches and his pitch mix, but he also steadily improved over the course of the season as he tinkered with his new approach. Take a look at his numbers in April/May, followed by June/July and August/September/October.

José Alvarado’s 2022 Season in Thirds
IP K/9 BB/9 ERA HardHit% SwStr% F-Strike% O-Swing
April-May 13 11.77 6.92 7.62 45.9% 13.9% 58.5% 32.7%
June-July 17 15.35 5.29 3.18 29.7% 18.2% 61.8% 34.6%
August-October 21 15.00 1.71 0.43 23.5% 18.0% 61.6% 44.1%

What’s more, it’s not like opposing batters are just going to “figure out” Alvarado’s approach and adjust accordingly — at least not that easily. Hitters already know he is throwing more strikes; it’s why they’re swinging at his pitches more often. Unfortunately for them, swinging more often hasn’t done much good. They’re whiffing more, and even when they have made contact, it hasn’t led to many hits. Simply put, there’s only so much figuring out a hitter can do against two pitches that look nearly identical out of the windup but cross the plate at vastly different speeds and vastly different locations. Alvarado’s stuff is overpowering and deceptive, and that’s going to be the case no matter how prepared opposing lineups are. As long as he continues not to hurt himself with poor control, he’s going to be remarkably tough to beat.

On Tuesday afternoon in Atlanta, Alvarado asked the Truist Park grounds crew to make some adjustments to the mound, waving off the ensuing chirps from the Braves’ dugout, and proceeded to retire the side in order. It took him only 11 pitches, seven of which were strikes and five of which clocked in at over 100 mph. Alvarado is in control, and that’s just how he likes it.

Leo is a writer for FanGraphs and an editor for Just Baseball. His work has also been featured at Baseball Prospectus, Pitcher List, and SB Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @morgenstenmlb.

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3 months ago

Outstanding job, Leo.