ANAHEIM, CA: Henderson Alvarez #37 of the Toronto Blue Jays throws a pitch against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Angel Stadium of Anaheim in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Henderson Alvarez has been talked about as a developing ace, and he's sitting on a 2.62 ERA. Fantastic! About that.
There was a starting pitcher you might not remember whose name was Nate Cornejo. His name presumably still is Nate Cornejo, but he's no longer a starting pitcher. As far as I know, he's no longer a pitcher. I don't know what he is, and his major-league career was brief. Between 2001-2004, he started 56 games for the Detroit Tigers, and since 2005, his big-league playing record is blank. But I'll never forget Nate Cornejo, and not just because he was a prominent member of the historic 2003 Tigers team we don't talk about enough. I'll never forget him because, over 313 innings, he struck out 103 batters. In his one full season - that being 2003 - he approached 200 innings, and fell short of 50 strikeouts. I'll never forget Nate Cornejo because he was probably the most hittable starting pitcher in my lifetime.
This past offseason, I don't want to say that a lot was written about Henderson Alvarez. A lot was written about Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder and the Miami Marlins. Relatively little was written about Henderson Alvarez, and if it was your mission to avoid reading anything about Henderson Alvarez, it wouldn't have been a challenge. But there were articles, and each of those articles was complimentary. Why wouldn't they have been? Alvarez was coming off a rookie season in which he posted a low ERA as a 21-year-old. A 21-year-old coming straight from double-A.
Alvarez was and is a young starting pitcher with a live arm and a running fastball. Many of those articles about Alvarez quoted scouts, and many of those scouts talked about Alvarez as if he were a developing ace. He was ahead of the curve, having had tremendous success at a young age, and he had the arm to back it up.
Given a slot in the Toronto Blue Jays' rotation from the get-go, Alvarez has started eight games in 2012. Over those eight games, he's allowed just 16 earned runs, with 13 walks and a terrific groundball rate. Those qualities are all fairly ace-like. But then you look at the rest of Alvarez's stat line and you pause. Alvarez has started eight games. He's faced 222 batters. Of those 222 batters, just 15 have struck out.
On April 28, Anibal Sanchez struck out 14 of 28 Diamondbacks. On May 10, Stephen Strasburg struck out 13 of 24 Pirates. On April 13, Dodgers pitchers combined to strike out 18 of 42 Padres. Henderson Alvarez has faced 222 batters, and just 15 have struck out.
It doesn't make a whole lot of sense. And Alvarez's low strikeout rate is backed up by his high contact rate, which is presently the third-highest in baseball among starters. Alvarez has allowed more frequent contact than Kevin Correia, Derek Lowe, and Carl Pavano. If you want to go back, in 2003, Nate Cornejo allowed a contact rate of 90.7 percent. So far in 2012, Henderson Alvarez has allowed a contact rate of 90.3 percent.
If Henderson Alvarez were just some guy, it wouldn't be a big deal. Some pitchers are more hittable than others. But have you ever watched Henderson Alvarez? If you haven't, you're about to. If you have, you're also about to. I present to you a non-random but non-specifically-selected collection of Henderson Alvarez pitches:
Wow, look at that sink!
Boy, that just fell off the table!
Look at that run off the plate!
Zoinks, he fell down! Alvarez really blew him away!
Those pitches were grabbed from Alvarez's MLB.com video highlight page, so obviously they're among his better pitches. But still, these are the sorts of pitches Alvarez is capable of throwing. FanGraphs has his average fastball at 93 miles per hour. He's mixed in a slider and a changeup a total of a quarter of the time. Alvarez has weapons. They have not missed bats. They have missed some bats, as presented above, but they've missed fewer bats than almost anyone else's weapons. Alvarez has been less hittable than Jeff Suppan, but if someone introduced me to a pitcher by saying "he's been less hittable than Jeff Suppan," I'd probably run away with my hands over my ears. Nothing good will begin with that sentence.
Alvarez, of course, isn't out there trying to put batters away. He's out there trying to induce weak contact, and at least so far, he's succeeded. Witness the ERA. Witness the low line-drive rate. Witness the high fly-ball rate. Alvarez throws a lot of his sinker, and he throws a lot of it low in the zone, and those are relatively hittable pitches, on purpose.
So one of the reasons for Alvarez's hittability is that he isn't trying to be unhittable. But you look at his pitches, then you look at his numbers, then you look at his pitches, then you look at his numbers, and it's just ... I wish I had a better word than "weird". It's been so easy for hitters to put the bat on the ball.
If you pause and take a step back, I think here we can really appreciate just how good major-league hitters are at making contact. Alvarez is out there throwing sinkers at 91-94 miles per hour, and every so often he'll mix in something offspeed, and batters touch the baseball. This helps you appreciate just how good hitters are at making contact, and, in turn, this helps you appreciate just how hard it is for a pitcher to allow limited contact. Alvarez has allowed a contact rate of about 91 percent. Shaun Marcum has allowed a contact rate of about 74 percent, and his fastball's in the mid-80s. Do you know how tricky Marcum's offspeed stuff must be? Do you know how good Marcum must be at placing it? Major-league hitters are so good. Major-league pitchers are so good.
In 2003, Nate Cornejo struck out 5.5 percent of opposing batters. That's the lowest rate for a starting pitcher since 2000. Alvarez is sitting at 6.8 percent at the moment. He's closest to 2003 Kirk Rueter, who clocked in at 6.5 percent, and 2004 Kirk Rueter, who clocked in at 6.7 percent. 2002 Jimmy Anderson is in there at 7.3 percent, and now I'm remembering Jimmy Anderson. Those poor, poor Pirates.
I don't think Alvarez is going to challenge Nate Cornejo, and by the end of the season I expect Alvarez's strikeout rate to be higher and his contact rate to be lower. But I don't expect them to change that much, because Alvarez is just a hittable pitcher, despite his pitches. Eight starts into the season and he's right on 2003 Cornejo's contact allowed. That's not headline-news insane, but that's baseball-nerd insane. And for Alvarez to be in Kirk Rueter strikeout territory - did you watch those pitches above? Did you watch Kirk Rueter?
There is more to missing bats than velocity and movement. So far this season, Henderson Alvarez has made that abundantly clear. He's still a very talented and very young pitcher, and he still has the skill to stick around and get rich, but if you aren't weirded out by his numbers, you aren't paying attention. Nate Cornejo isn't a comparison one takes lightly.