Henderson Alvarez: Uber Prospect or Surprise Call Up?

Every so often 500 Level Fan is given a treat – a guest post written by a man who knows his Blue Jays prospects. 

So with the somewhat shocking news that Henderson Alvarez was promoted to the big leagues with a Friday start on the horizon, who better to discuss the move than 500 Level Fan correspondent – the man, the myth, the legend – Mr. David “Willie Canate Fan” Yarwood himself?

Was it a good move?  A bad one?  A surprising one?  Why Alvarez instead of Drabek?  Why start him instead of moving Litsch back to the rotation? 

Read on…

Henderson Alvarez called up!

Coming into the season, Alvarez was known as a young, hard throwing RHP with some success in the lower minors, but an uncertain future.  Reports had Alvarez throwing a solid low to mid 90s fastball and a plus change.  Despite that impressive repertoire, Alvarez has posted relatively low K numbers, 6.5K/9IP in just over 400IP in his pro career.  For comparison, in about the same number of minor league innings, Jesse Litsch has posted a K/9 of 7.6.

John Sickels at minorleagueball.com rated Alvarez the #20 prospect in the Jays organization on his pre-season list, saying that while Alvarez throws hard, he needed to have a good year to remain in the prospect picture.  

Baseball Prospectus listed Alvarez #16 on their top 20, saying: “Scouts love his stuff, yet wonder why the results rarely match.”

Alvarez did not make Baseball America’s top 10 for Toronto, but he was rated as having the organization’s best changeup (high praise in an organization that emphasizes the change.)

After two starts at high A Dunedin, Alvarez was promoted to AA New Hampshire where he has amassed the following numbers: 8W, 4L, 2.86 ERA, 88IP, 81H, 7HR, 17BB, 66K, 1.60 GO/AO.  The most impressive stats may be the very low walk rate (1.7BB/9IP, very impressive, especially for a young power pitcher) and the low HR allowed (0.7/9IP).  Alvarez is also a ground ball machine which helps to explain the difficulty hitters have taking him deep.  His HR/9 for his minor league career is only 0.5.  Two years ago in Lansing, he got some attention for allowing only 1 HR in 124 IP. 

Alvarez’s stock started to rise with his promotion to New Hampshire where he started to string together good starts.  In mid-June, Alvarez reportedly hit 101mph on the radar gun.  In an indication that Alvarez was beginning to attract attention among prospect watchers, Keith Law ranked Alvarez the #39 prospect in baseball on his midseason top-50. 

In a recent interview with battersbox, New Hampshire pitching coach Pete Walker was asked about Alvarez’s failure to put up impressive K numbers you might expect from a pitcher with his arsenal.  Walker said that Alvarez: “has refined his mechanics and he is attacking the strike zone.  He has a tremendous fastball and he is using his fastball predominantly and I think once he gets more command and control of his breaking stuff you will see the punch outs go up.  He has a very good change-up and it’s very unusual for a guy with kind of stuff not to have the strikeouts but I really do think it’s coming and I think his sinker is so devastating he gets a lot of guys to look bad and mishit balls but once he establishes that breaking ball better the strikeouts will go up.”

Walker’s prediction seems to have come true, and in his last 7 starts, Alvarez has 37K and only 5BB in 39.2IP: a K rate of 8.4 per 9IP. 

Alvarez is in many ways the model pitcher for the Jays organization.  A power arm, groundball machine who does not walk batters and throws a terrific changeup.  His curveball is still a work in progress, and that is perhaps the only thing holding him back from elite-prospect status.  Without a solid-average curve, Alvarez is still probably a major leaguer.  However, a lack of a solid third pitch will keep Alvarez a bit short against RH hitters.  Refining his curve may be the difference between a career as a late game reliever and a front-end starter. 

With that in mind, the obvious question is why did the Jays call Alvarez up to the majors right now?  Maybe it means that the Jays see themselves as contenders in 2012 and want to see if Alvarez can be a piece of the puzzle. After a successful trade deadline, management’s goal may be to clear the decks of players that will not be part of the picture next year and bring up any players within the organization most likely to get the team over the top. 

Perhaps Alvarez is being showcased as part of a package for a star player this offseason.  Alvarez’s value has to go up just by virtue of getting called up to the big leagues. Let a few potential trade partners see what Alvarez has and then… welcome to Toronto, Hanley Ramirez?

Richard Griffin speculated on Friday that Alvarez could be groomed as the Jays’ closer of the future.  If the Jays re-sign Frank Francisco to close next season, Frankie could experience déjà vu watching Alvarez push him out of 9th inning role, much like Nefatli Feliz did last year in Texas. 

Regardless of what the reason is for the call-up right now, I think it makes sense.  With a player like Brett Lawrie, the Jays could afford to be somewhat patient, expecting that however good he is now, he’ll probably be even better in his mid to late 20s.  Lawrie looked ready for the majors in spring training, but by sending him to AAA for 4 months, the Jays bought themselves an extra year of cheap service. But pitchers experience a much higher rate of attrition due to injury.  It may make sense to bring them to the majors as soon as they are ready, rather than wasting any healthy-arm-years in the minors. 

And notwithstanding the beatings absorbed earlier this year by Kyle Drabek, pitching prospects normally don’t need to be handled as delicately as hitters.  With only a few exceptions, hitters seem to develop best through exposure to incremental improvements in the quality of competition over the course of a several years and a few thousand PA.  Pitchers need to develop endurance, repeatable mechanics and command.  Once those skills are mastered, if their stuff is nasty, they belong in the big leagues.

Welcome Henderson Alvarez. Drew Hutchison, you’re next.

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