When the Detroit Tigers traded Cameron Maybin to the Los Angeles Angels after the 2016 season, it left a hole in the roster than was never filled. That hole became the story, particularly as the player the Tigers acquired, reliever Victor Alcantara, wasn’t particularly notable.
Almost two years later, things look a little different. Alcantara arrived in the Tigers’ system with major control issues, but a pretty nasty sinker-slider combination. His somewhat violent delivery and miserable fastball command typically undermined the quality of his stuff, and neither of his secondary pitches were particularly good. Most teams have a bushel of relievers like this throughout their farm systems. The majority never really figure it out.
Alcantara’s first season in the Tigers’ farm system was more of the same, as he walked 46 batters in 74 2⁄3 minor league innings. But in 2018, Alcantara, a pitcher who has struggled with his control since rookie ball, suddenly put it all together without any notable changes. He came out this spring throwing more strikes, found that he wasn’t getting hit hard, and just never stopped pounding the strike zone.
With Triple-A Toledo, Alcantara posted a 2.81 ERA across 51 1⁄3 innings of work. He made his season debut for the Tigers on July 5, and went on to throw another 30 innings in the major leagues. That’s an impressive total workload for a young reliever. More impressive was his 2.40 ERA for the Tigers. By September, Alcantara was perhaps Ron Gardenhire’s second-best option in the bullpen behind Joe Jimenez, as closer Shane Greene faded badly down the stretch.
One big stat: 1.03 WHIP
Alcantara’s 5.0 percent walk rate is the key reason he was so successful with the Tigers, but in unpacking his WHIP, we can see reasons for both caution and optimism going forward. On the plus side, Alcantara took a major step forward with his control. He lowered his walk rate dramatically with the Mud Hens, and sustained it for 81 1⁄3 innings of work across two levels. For years, his funky mechanics and inability to locate left scouts skeptical that he would ever throw a enough strikes to succeed. At the very least, his work this season makes clear that he is capable of more, even without an obvious adjustment or “eureka” moment to explain it.
On the other hand, Alcantara limited quality of contact on balls in play this season, and depended on it heavily for his success. His strikeout rate of just 17.7 percent is 4.6 percentage points lower than league average. That can work with a walk rate as low as he posted this season, but trusting that to be sustainable is probably foolish until he manages it for a full major league season.
He allowed a wOBA of .290, while Statcast had his expected wOBA at .294. He wasn’t lucky, necessarily, other than the good fortune to give up most of his extra base hits without runners on base. Alcantara is going to rely on weak contact, and while he got more than his share of softly hit balls, pop-ups, and routine grounders, there are good reasons to suspect he won’t be able to do it again.
Alcantara posted a .230 average on balls in play (BABIP) for the Tigers. The league average was .293 in 2018. A substantial part of his success was based on a low BABIP of the sort that only the elite pitchers in the game can produce year in and year out. A 30 inning sample is nowhere near enough to have any confidence that the sinkerballer can repeat this in the years to come.
The average exit velocity against him was 87.0 miles per hour off the bat, which is only a smidge under the league average of 87.7 mph. The contact wasn’t notably soft overall. However, Alcantara did post a 50 percent ground ball rate, which is helpful, particularly as the Tigers drastically increased the amount of infield shifts they used this year, and did so with a lot of success. He also induced his fair share of pop-ups, and limited line drives to just an 18.9 percent rate, which is quite good. Line drives fall for hits more than any other batted ball type, so if he can keep that rate low, he may still be effective next season, assuming the gains in his control are for real. Just don’t expect another 2.40 ERA out of him.
For Alcantara to really bloom into a quality high leverage reliever, he will have to generate more strikeouts at the major league level. It’s nearly impossible to be a dominant reliever in the current hitting environment when allowing so many balls in play. Unfortunately, the weapons to become a real strikeout artist just aren’t apparent in Alcantara’s repertoire. His whole arsenal consists of hard, low-spin stuff that sinks.
To his credit, Alcantara managed a swinging strike rate right at league average. It’s possible that more strikeouts will come, but the data on his secondary offerings doesn’t support much optimism. It’s a limited set of pitches, all of which need to be located low in the zone or out of it, and all in the same general velocity band. Unless something changes substantially with his pitch mix, his strikeouts just aren’t likely to increase.
The Tigers have themselves an arm whose ability to get groundballs and reasonably balanced splits, probably make him best suited to middle relief. He’ll have to work hard to make a very limited set of pitches work for him. If everything goes well, and he sustains the improved control, he still doesn’t really profile as a high leverage reliever. However, as a guy who can take over from a starter, show teams a different look, and get more than three outs, there is certainly potential for him to be a solid piece of the Tigers’ pen going forward.
Alcantara is 25 years old, so he does have time to improve, but it’s hard to see much remaining ceiling to his abilities. If the Tigers managed to package him in a deal for anything of value before the control issues return, it would be hard to argue. Most likely, the Tigers will give him plenty of leash in 2019, and see if he can build on what was inarguably a pretty successful 2018 campaign.
What grade would you give Victor Alcantara’s performance in 2018?
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