I study pitching quite a lot. I am fascinated by how and why pitches move the way they do. I enjoy poring over video, looking at spin data, movement charts, etc. One of the pitchers I love to study the most is Phillies reliever José Alvarado, who is no stranger to breaking the internet with his demon sinker and sweeping cutter combo. Acquired by the Phillies from the Rays in the offseason, Alvarado proves that sometimes a change of scenery can help a player improve their performance after falling into some struggles.
In 2018, Alvarado was one of the stars in the Rays bullpen, amassing 2.1 fWAR in 64.0 innings of work. The Rays just missed the postseason that year, but with a 90-win campaign, it was clear they were quickly becoming one of baseball’s strongest teams, and Alvarado looked to be one of the most important contributors. But that’s not quite what happened. While the Rays did make the postseason, Alvarado scuffled after a hot start, having to miss part of the season to attend to important personal matters.
When he came back, he wasn’t the same. Alvarado ended the season with nearly double the walk rate of the previous season, and an ERA of almost five. He didn’t fare a whole lot better in the pandemic 2020 season, getting into just nine games and pitching to an ERA of almost seven. But the 2021 season represented a fresh start for the hard-throwing southpaw, as the Phillies put their faith in him to help repair a bullpen that was historically bad in ‘20.
So far, the move is paying major dividends. In the young season, Alvarado is striking out nearly 40% of batters while walking under 8% of them. To be fair, I don’t expect either of those rates to stay there, but this is at least an indication of what he can do when he is at his best. Cutting down on the walks is the key for Alvarado (and the Phillies if the are counting on him to be a high leverage bullpen piece) to be successful, and as of now, he seems to be doing just that.
His arsenal is unfair
Even when Alvarado is not at his best, the stuff is elite. This year, however, he has taken it to a new level. While Alvarado has been known to throw triple digits in his career, this year he leads baseball in average fastball velocity at 99.4 mph, up from 97.0 mph in ‘20. Not only is he hitting 100 mph with regularity, he is almost living there. And if one hundred isn’t already hard enough to hit, combine that with 14 inches of horizontal movement and you have a sinker that is nearly impossible to square up.
Playing off the sinker is the cutter, of which Alvarado has increased in all of its usage, velocity, and horizontal movement. In ‘20, Alvarado threw the cutter about 11% of the time and the pitch averaged 90.7 mph and 2.4 inches of horizontal movement (per Baseball Savant). So far in ‘21, he is relying on it 16% of the time, and averaging a whopping 94.5 mph (only Corbin Burnes throws a harder cutter) and 3.7 inches of horizontal movement. In a small sample, hitters are missing on nearly 80% of their swings.
Imagine gearing up for a triple digit fastball and getting this 94 mph ‘change of pace.’
Over the past few years, we have seen the highs and lows of José Alvarado. At his best, he is as dangerous a bullpen weapon as any and one of the most GIFable pitchers in baseball. At his worst, he struggles to find the strike zone with any consistency. Still, he is only 25 years old, so his best pitching may still be ahead—which is a scary thought for the hitters who have to get in the box against him.
The sample is small so far, but Alvarado has been the best version of himself in his short Phillies tenure. If he can keep missing bats the way he knows how—and keep the walks down while doing it—the Phillies may have the shut down reliever they were so badly missing a season ago. And if the bullpen is improved, many people in the baseball sphere (myself included) may need to re-evaluate where they see Philadelphia among the teams in the National League East.
Brian Menéndez is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score, as well as a senior writer for DRaysBay. Additionally, he has been featured in The Hardball Times. You can find Brian on Twitter at @briantalksbsb.