If you've read any of TPR's articles during the season, you're familiar with the Jose Alvarez story. Released by the Marlins after a so-so Double-A season, the Tigers picked him up to fill out the Toledo rotation. While there, he's spent his time opening eyes with a sparkling ERA and terrific peripherals, immensely improving on his prior work. But, great minor league stats do not guarantee major league success.
To get a better idea of how much we should actually care about Alvarez' performance, I'm putting one of his starts under a microscope, giving you a pitch-by-pitch analysis of everything Jose Alvarez has to offer on the mound. In particular, I've chosen his April 23rd start at Durham. I chose this game simply because Durham uses the great cameras, great angles, and they are also one of the few broadcasts which display speed gun readings.
Durham's lineup for the day: Jason Bourgeois, Mike Fontenot, Wil Myers, Leslie Anderson, Chris Gimenez, Brandon Guyer, Cole Figueroa, Tim Beckham, Rich Thompson
Against Jason Bourgeois, Alvarez threw four fastballs at around 87 MPH. On a 2-1 count, Alvarez threw a harder fastball inside which Bourgeois hit for a lazy F7. Alvarez dialed up the velocity against Fontenot to 89 and then 90, while also throwing his first slider at 82, and a curveball spiked in the 70s. He lost control of an inside fastball and hit Fontenot on a 2-2 count. Alvarez attacked Myers with breaking pitches with little success, struggling to command either the slider or the curve. On 2-1, he threw Myers a 76 MPH changeup which was fouled away. Myers drove a well-located 89 MPH fastball on the down-and-away corner the opposite way for a single. Velocity can still reach 89 in the stretch. Anderson, a lefty, was completely fooled on a first pitch curve. Curveball has a good hard break, with reliable arm action that doesn't telegraph the curve. Anderson is struck out on a more exaggerated curve low-and-away. Alvarez was willing to throw changeups inside and outside on the righty Gimenez, and also reached 91 with the fastball. Gimenez hit a changeup on the outside corner for a single up the middle. Guyer would strike out on the same outside change. Good mix of pitches, kept hitters guessing by not over-relying on a particular pitch or sequence. Changed speed with purpose with both the fastball and the curve, and threw all of his pitches on both sides of the plate.
First pitch was a fastball at 86. Slider lacks any defining characteristic and might actually be a 2-seam fastball. Figueroa chopped a curve for a 4-3 out. Alvarez started Beckham with a changeup in the zone; a ballsy pitch which would fool a batter hacking at a fastball, but would also get crushed if the hitter recognized it. Beckham hit a changeup for a 1-3 ground out. First pitch to Thompson was up-and-in with a fastball at 90, and then Thompson popped up a curve to short left. Alvarez is very unpredictable, and generally executes his strategy with command. Jim Price would refer to these qualities as "The Art of Pitching."
On 0-1 he threw another slider/2-seam thing to Bourgeois. He took it for a strike, but there's just nothing to like about the pitch: lazily sweeps from left to right, no bite, no depth, and no deception. Even referring to it as a "show-me pitch" seems overly generous. Bourgeois chopped an 0-2 well-thrown curve for a 5-3 out. He threw the slider on 0-1 to Fontenot, who hit a hard-but-playable grounder that was booted by Nunez. On 0-1, Alvarez threw a slider inside to Wil Myers. I don't get why he's throwing it so much this inning, but Myers smoked it to left for a double. TV crew now speculating that it might be a cutter and not a slider (that's not a good sign). On 2-2, Anderson pulled an outside curve for a 4-3 groundout; while generally a fine outcome, Anderson was probably doing it purposefully to score Fontenot from 3rd. Curveball seems to be effective against righties as well as lefties, especially given how well he disguises it from the changeup, which is roughly the same speed. Alvarez walked Gimenez on some check swings on curves and borderline calls on fastballs he didn't get. Weak 5-3 grounder off the curve ends the inning. For that inning, he seemed to substitute the slider/cutter for the changeup, a strategic decision which went poorly.
Camera didn't cut to the game quickly enough for me to see what pitch was thrown, but Figueroa was a first pitch groundout to 2nd. Alvarez is still showing great command in hitting the bottom corners with the curveball, and he froze Beckham with two curves at the knees for a strikeout looking. Thompson hits another curve at the knees for a lazy F7. Alvarez decided to limit his strategy to only throwing low pitches this inning, to great effect.
First pitch to Bourgeois is at 86. Alvarez seems to need a few pitches to ramp up his velocity. Bourgeois pops the second pitch up to 2nd; the camera didn't let me see the pitch, but I'm sure it was good. Alvarez has had some trouble with command as he attempts to elevate fastballs, making it a largely ineffective strategy. On 3-1, Fontenot took a hack at a high fastball and softly lined it to 2nd; poor decision by Fontenot. Alvarez has gone back to attacking Myers with inside fastballs and outside changeups. Myers strikes out swinging on a well-located changeup low-and-away. It's encouraging to see that on the 3rd trip through the lineup, opposing hitters don't seem to have him figured out.
Alvarez was very sloppy with his command against Anderson, but still struck him out on a 88 mph fastball above the belt. Virtually everything he's trying to command low this inning is going up (fastballs) or in the dirt (curves). Changeup command is still sound. He was still able to induce a popup from Gimenez, and Alvarez then went to a slower curve to hit his spots against Guyer. Alvarez ended his day with a well-located changeup low-and-away, which Guyer bounced out 5-3.
There's so much to like about the way Jose Alvarez pitches. He changes speeds well and is comfortable with four different pitches, giving hitters a plethora of different looks to anticipate. He's also willing to come inside against anyone and attack hitters with anything; some might describe him as a "bulldog." Arm action is clean and doesn't change from pitch to pitch, with quick action that is hard to pick up and adds deception. Command stays steady through a starter's workload, and the depth of his arsenal prevents him from being tagged on his 3rd trip through the order. Very few mistake pitches, and the ones that are mistakes don't end up middle of the zone. Alvarez holds runners ok and fields his position well. Buuuuut.....
The elephant in the room is his arm. It's just mediocre at best, with velocity only scraping 90 and no offspeed pitches that have any sort of wow factor. He has a good arsenal but not one so deep that he can excel by just throwing piles of junk at hitters like Kenny Rogers. If he had Casey Crosby's arm, he'd have easy #2 potential, and he would be one of the top prospects in the game. But, he doesn't.
Fastball (86-90): 40-45
Changeup (76): 50-55
Curves (72-75): 60
Slider/Cutter (82-84): 35-40
Ceiling role: Could handle a month or two of starts, pitch as the last man in a bullpen for a few years, or be a LOOGY for as long as he can spin a curveball.