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Tigers’ Victor Alcantara is quietly having a breakout season

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Alternate title: the Tigers actually won the Cameron Maybin trade.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Kansas City Royals Peter G. Aiken

Remember when the Detroit Tigers traded Cameron Maybin on the first day of the offseason following the 2016 season? People were not happy. Maybin was the only center fielder on the roster at the time, and had a reasonable $9 million team option remaining on his contract. Rather than pay that money plus the associated luxury tax penalty, the Tigers instead shipped him to the Los Angeles Angels, where he enjoyed a very Cameron Maybin season — the numbers were okay, and then he got hurt.

That trade riled so many people up that they forget who the Tigers received in return. Righthander Victor Alcantara, once a highly rated pitcher in the Angels organization, made a few forgettable appearances for the Tigers last year, and walked too many batters for anyone’s liking in the minors. He was outrighted off the 40-man roster in December, and many (myself included) just kind of forgot about him.

The 2018 season, however, has been a different story. Alcantara has sorted out his command, and is putting up zeroes on the regular.

If we include his numbers at Triple-A Toledo, Alcantara has a 2.18 ERA in 66 total innings this season. He has walked just nine batters all year, a total he eclipsed in two separate months of action last season. The strikeouts aren’t quite there yet, but he fanned close to a batter per inning down in the minors, and has all but ensured he won’t be going back down this year.

How did we get here?

Most of Alcantara’s improvements are related to his command. He is throwing more strikes, which solves a lot of problems. Walking five batters per nine innings is bad, but Alcantara has found the zone, and is forcing more hitters to swing the bat. Even though more of those hitters are making contact — his swinging strike rate is down by three percentage points this year — this still provides more resistance than watching pitches sail out of the strike zone.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t make for interesting analysis. We may look at video later on to see if Alcantara has made any mechanical changes, but “stopped walking dudes” is the main reason why Alcantara has found success in 2018.

Instead, let’s focus on sustainability

As mentioned, Alcantara’s swinging strike rate has taken a dip from his 7 13 inning cameo in the big leagues last year. He is only generating whiffs on 8.9 percent of pitches thrown, which is just slightly better than strikeout monsters Blaine Hardy and Ryan Carpenter. Even after Alcantara struck out the side in a scoreless inning on Monday, his season-long strikeout rate sits at just 14.3 percent. He has been better than that down in the minor leagues, but a strikeout rate around 22 percent in Triple-A doesn’t exactly suggest he will be a shutdown reliever going forward.

The batted ball data is encouraging, though. Alcantara has induced a ground ball rate of 52.2 percent this year, and his soft contact and pull rates — 26.1 percent and 56.5 percent, respectively — are well above league average. We’re still looking at a small sample of innings, of course, but Alcantara is using his two-seam fastball and changeup to get hitters to roll over on a lot of pitches for weak groundouts. His .222 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), while unsustainable, suggests a similar profile.

(I’m not sure what to make of the high pop-up rate yet, so we’ll put a pin in that and see if it’s still hovering around 18 percent after more innings.)

Even simple advanced metrics like FIP paint Alcantara in a positive light. His 0.61 ERA won’t last, but he has a 3.36 FIP and 3.71 xFIP in the majors this year, with a 2.78 FIP in the minors. His low walk rate has resulted in an excellent 4.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio, which, paired with his high ground ball rate and apparent ability to miss barrels, could make him a solid reliever in the coming years.