Prospect Watch: The Mets’ Dominant Duo

Today, I’m going to do something slightly different in this space than I have previously. Rather than discussing the pasts, presents, and futures of three prospects I’ve seen in a serialized fashion, I am going to tell you about a game I attended this past Saturday, July 5th.

Of course, I go to a lot of games, and not all of them are worth talking about. But the reason this particular one was interesting was that it involved two pitchers who entered the game with statlines that almost had to be seen to be believed.

This season, Savannah’s Dario Alvarez and Akeel Morris have combined for the following numbers: 92 IP, 53 H, 12 R, 9 ER, 3 HR, 29 BB, 149 K, 0.88 ERA, 1.85 FIP, 41.6% K, 8.1% BB. Morris (the squad’s closer) has walked guys at a higher rate than Alvarez (who opened the year relieving but is now starting), but has allowed hits at a lower rate; the rest of the pair’s statistics are quite similar, and similarly ridiculous at that.

Dominance of that nature is almost hard to evaluate. Obviously, Alvarez and Morris have overmatched Low-A hitters, but how good does that mean they are? We don’t often see pitchers left to dominate a level in this fashion for 40+ innings without getting moved up. If you put a run-of-the-mill MLB pitcher like, say, Kevin Correia or Kyle Kendrick, in the South Atlantic League right now, would he pitch this well? How about a solid Triple-A pitcher, or a good Double-A pitcher?

It’s odd going into a game expecting dominance, but not knowing how it’s going to happen. It’s one thing if you’re seeing a top prospect and you’re expecting top-shelf stuff, the sort that overmatches hitters at almost every level–the dominance is a natural outgrowth of the positive attributes you expect to see, so it’s not surprising. But Dario Alvarez and Akeel Morris are not the sort of pitchers you really see coming. In the 2014 Baseball America Prospect Handbook, Morris is buried off the top 30 Mets prospects and listed as the organization’s ninth-best right-handed reliever. Players in front of him on that list include Domingo Tapia, a fireballer who has walked more batters than he’s struck out in High-A this year repeating the level, Erik Goeddel, a 25-year-old who has pedestrian numbers in Triple-A and who’s been fairly mediocre all the way up the chain, Jeff Walters, another 25-year-old who has an 8.86 ERA in Triple-A this year, and Greg Peavey, yet another older pitcher who put up a 12.21 ERA in Triple-A this year before recovering some in Double-A. Dario Alvarez, for his part, isn’t even on the Mets organizational depth chart in the Handbook.

If you take a look at the histories of the two hurlers, it’s easy to see why their huge contributions have sort of come out of nowhere. Morris, a tenth-round pick in 2010 out of the Virgin Islands of all places, spent four years in short-season ball. In his third, he posted a 7.98 ERA repeating the Appalachian League. He has always had big strikeout rates, though, and he dominated the New-York Penn League last year (1.00 ERA, 60 K in 45 IP), so he was at least on the fringes of the picture.

Alvarez wasn’t, because Alvarez is 25. He started his career in 2007 after being signed out of the Dominican Republic by the Phillies, and followed the fairly conventional route of throwing his teenage years in the Dominican Summer League. For whatever reason, he was released by the organization after the 2009 season and didn’t find another home–in organized or independent ball–until signing with the Mets in 2013, at which point he put up good but unexceptional numbers in the short-season New-York Penn League (57 K, 3.10 ERA in 58 IP) last year…at age 24. A nice little comeback, to be sure, but nothing to make him a prospect given how ahead of the age curve he was.

But now we’re here, with both guys throwing exceptionally well. Let’s get to how and why.

The above video features Alvarez’s first batter faced in his most recent start. It took me approximately fifty seconds to figure out why he’s been so dominant. He starts out by throwing a changeup at 85, which was startling, because for a second I was worried that was his fastball. Then he threw a fastball at 90, which was fine if relatively uninspiring, before reaching back for 92 on the third pitch–not bad. And then he threw a slider, and everything made sense.

It’s weird watching Dario Alvarez dominate hitters, not just because it seems almost unfair, but also because he’s 25. When you watch low-minors players, you always have to be thinking not just about what you’re seeing, but also how the player can build on what you’re seeing. Guys in Low-A are there because they’re not good enough to play in the big leagues yet, and so they have to improve, and in evaluating prospects, we have to decide what improvements they’re likely to make, not just evaluate their current abilities. But with Alvarez, that’s imprudent. He may not be at his peak right now, but he’s close enough to it that one doesn’t project huge improvements without an extremely good (and presumably odd) reason. The question really is, is he just about good enough to pitch in the big leagues or not? And that’s a really tough question to answer when the only hitters you get to see him face are Low-A ones.

When it comes to talking about prospects, I’m more relativistic than most analysts. Much of online prospect analysis pins players in very specific, defined roles, whereas I’m more likely to say a player has, say, a small chance at superstardom and a reasonable chance at being a regular but also could bust. That’s just the way I think about these things. But with Alvarez, you can’t really do that. The time is now; he’s 25? What is he?

So I’ll go out on a limb and say this: If you put Dario Alvarez in a major-league bullpen right now, he’d be at least a replacement-level pitcher.

As it turns out, 92 wasn’t Alvarez’s peak velocity in the start–he had several 93s and a couple of 94s. Overall, he worked at 89-93 and touched 94, and the pitch flashes some nice running action, especially at the lower velocities. Out of the bullpen, he’d likely be able to sit 92-94 more consistently, making a pitch that’s currently in between a 50 and a 55 offering into more of a 60-grade pitch. That should play just fine.

And then there’s that gorgeous slider, which is already at least a 60 pitch, and I graded as a 65 based on my viewing. It’s definitely one of the five best sliders I’ve ever seen–the only one I can clearly recall as better is Shae Simmons‘, and Simmons rocketed to the bigs in less than a year after I saw him dominate Low-A batters. Watch the breaking ball just overwhelm batters:

Those are just three of his eight strikeouts in 5 1/3 stellar innings, which almost qualified as an “off night” for Alvarez. The fastball and slider both clearly are legitimate offerings that could play well (at least in a bullpen role) at much higher levels than this. Alvarez does throw a changeup that ranges from 82-87 mph that occasionally flashes near average, but it’s well behind the other two offerings, and it would likely be too much to ask for him to become a big league starter given that the changeup is below-average and his command doesn’t project to be stellar. But on the latter front, his delivery is relatively clean and compact and it features a bit of deception; while Alvarez doesn’t look like he’s going to be a precision guy against better talent, he still should have enough idea of where the fastball and slider are going to make them work out all right. Put the guy in the bullpen and watch as you get something like Will Smith’s 2014.

After Alvarez was lifted due to hitting his pitch count and replaced by organizational arms John Mincone and Hunter Carnevale, Morris came in to close out the ballgame, and he did so with ruthless efficiency. Below is his entire outing:

Entertaining stuff, that. Honestly, I expected Morris to throw a bit harder than he does–he works at 93-94 here, touching 95 once–but I wasn’t expecting either that delivery or that changeup. The sequence to Demeritte goes 92, 77, 74, 93, 94, and the two slow ones are changeups, not breaking balls. No wonder Demeritte was late on the last two heaters–that’s Alex Claudio-level speed separation, and Morris sells it well with his deceptive over-the-top delivery which the charting pitchers behind me noted looks uncannily like an outfielder’s throwing motion. The deception makes both pitches play up, and the fastball brings some cutting action to the party. The changeup actually doesn’t appear to have a whole lot of movement, but the velocity separation alone makes it a plus pitch because he sells it so well. Morris also throws a slider at 79-80 mph that lags behind the other two pitches but has some potential.

And, of course, we can actually talk about potential with Morris, who is 21 and has some room to fill out his athletic frame. There’s definitely some Fernando Rodney potential here if he can find a way to keep the ball around the zone at higher levels, because that motion and that changeup is going to present a tough look in short stints to batters at even the game’s top level. Unlike a lot of deception-oriented pitchers, Morris has enough heat that he can get the ball by batters, and that also means he’s more likely to get away with stuff up in the zone than, say, the aforementioned Claudio.

So, all told, there are pretty good reasons Alvarez and Morris are throwing so well–the real question is why they’re still in Savannah. With Alvarez, the answer is partially that he got stretched out to start after a few weeks in relief, though really, both guys need to be moved up very soon. Neither pitcher necessarily projects to be completely lights-out like this in the big leagues, but both could evolve into very useful relief pieces–in Alvarez’s case, he might already be a decent bullpen arm. Not bad for a couple of guys who broke camp this year in a Low-A bullpen buried on the organizational depth chart.

Nathaniel Stoltz is a prospect writer for FanGraphs. A resident of Bowie, MD and University of Maryland graduate student, he frequently views prospects in the Carolina and South Atlantic Leagues. He can be followed on Twitter at @stoltz_baseball.

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9 years ago

heh… John Lannan’s taking up space in high A right now…maybe when he gets called up (*shudder*), there’ll be room enough for Alvarez