Jose Alvarado has improved his control. Now he needs better command.
As the only lefty currently in the Rays bullpen, Jose Alvarado frequently enters the game to retire left-handed hitters. He's struggled to start the 2017 season, though, with a 5.29 ERA in 17 innings. While his peripheral statistics are more encouraging — he has a 3.66 FIP, based on his rates of strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed — he hasn't put up the sort of dominating numbers you'd expect from someone with his ability.
This year, Alvarado has averaged 98.52 mph on his four-seam fastball, according to Brooks Baseball. That's incredible for anyone, but especially for a left-hander — among the 93 southpaws with at least 100 four-seamers this year, only the Yankees' Aroldis Chapman (99.98) and the Pirates' Felipe Rivero (98.53) have thrown theirs harder.
Even better, Alvarado has overcome one of his biggest issues from his prospect days. Over six years and 211 innings in the minors, Alvarado had a 15.1 percent walk rate. In the majors, though, he's shown an ability to throw strikes — he's put the ball in the strike zone 49.8 percent of the time, according to FanGraphs, which is above the MLB average of 47.6 percent. That's helped him walk just six of the 72 hitters he's faced (and one of those was intentional).
So if Alvarado throws hard and can find the strike zone, why hasn't he pitched better? His case is illustrative of a critical distinction for pitchers — the difference between control and command. While Alvarado has thrown plenty of strikes this year, they haven't been quality strikes, and that's cost him.
Let's return to that 49.8 percent zone rate. Statistics writer Bill Petti has created metrics that divide the strike zone into two areas — the heart, and the edge. A pitcher who lives in the latter area, catching hitters looking at pitches on the corners, will generally excel; a pitcher who lives in the former area, serving up meatball after meatball, will generally run into some problems.
According to Petti's data, Alvarado has thrown 25.9 percent of his pitches in the heart of the zone. Among the 418 pitchers with at least 250 pitches thrown this year, that's the 30th-highest. By contrast, he's thrown 23.9 percent of his pitches on the edges of the zone, which is the 83rd-lowest in that 418-pitcher sample. More often than not, Alvarado's strikes have come in the areas of the strike zone that hurt him.
The blazing four-seam fastball — which Alvarado has thrown 82.4 percent of the time this year, per Brooks — is the source of that trouble. Alvarado has challenged hitters with the pitch, but he's grooved it pretty frequently:
When a hitter swings at a center-cut heater — especially one in the upper 90s — he'll usually get good wood. This season, according to FanGraphs, 36.4 percent of the balls in play against Alvarado have been classified as "hard-hit." Compared to a big-league average of 32.2 percent, that won't fly.
This is nothing new for Alvarado. In the minors, he displayed "potentially fatal command issues," FanGraphs' Eric Longenhagen wrote in March. His "trouble controlling his body and repeating his release point" bore some of the blame for that, according to his Baseball America profile.
Alvarado has certainly improved this year. Both FanGraphs and BA cited his control issues as factors working against him, and he's made considerable progress in that regard this year. To stick around in the Rays bullpen, he'll need to work on his command. He turned 22 last month, so he still has time to figure it out; whether he'll do so in the major leagues or down on the farm remains to be seen.