Alfaro's 'wake-up call' & preparations for '21

February 19th, 2021

After watching the Marlins' first playoff appearance in 17 years from the bench, Jorge Alfaro got back to work. Less than a week into the offseason, he began traveling back and forth between Miami and the club's complex in Jupiter, Fla., to train with catching coach Eddy Rodriguez.

Though 2020 turned out to be a fruitful season for the upstart Marlins, the same could not be said for Alfaro. He strained his left oblique before the pandemic shut down Spring Training, then he caught COVID-19 and missed the first month of the season. Alfaro never could get going, slashing .226/.280/.344 with a .624 OPS in 31 games. Come the postseason, Miami had turned to backup Chad Wallach because of his gamecalling and defense.

"That was for me like a wake-up call to just start working on what I needed to prove," Alfaro said on Friday on Zoom. "That was on my mind the whole offseason, just to get better -- my defense, hitting, everything. Even if you have to sacrifice time with the family or my son [by not going back to Colombia]. All that. I know to get to be the player I want to be, we have to make a sacrifice."

During his time with Rodriguez, not only did Alfaro work on the mechanics of catching -- receiving, blocking and framing -- but also understanding the pitchers. Once a week, Alfaro held Zoom meetings with Rodriguez and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. to discuss the staff, focusing on coming up with a game plan based on each guy's strengths.

From an intangibles perspective, the goal is to make the pitchers feel comfortable with the 27-year-old Alfaro by building trust. He compared the role of catcher to that of a bodyguard, a reminder to the guy on the mound that he isn't alone. Alfaro, who texted or spoke with some of Miami's pitchers over the offseason, admitted that he had difficulty communicating with pitchers in the past. At first, it was the language barrier. It then became a matter of being afraid of making a mistake and asking the coaches. He is past that now.

"I've had the pleasure to work with Jorge for the last two years," said right-hander Pablo López, who threw to Alfaro in a bullpen session on Friday. "During the offseason, I kept hearing how hard he was working, how he was up here in Jupiter working on his craft. His attitude's just as good as it gets. He's willing to help you before the bullpen session, and he came and talked to me and he's like, 'What do you want to work on? Tell me if you want me to move.' And you know, his target was good. He's framing everything. Just gives you a boost of confidence when you're on the mound to make sure that he's just willing to help you in any way he can."

López's evaluation is a testament to Alfaro's offseason work. Aside from the Phillies' J.T. Realmuto, there isn't a more athletic backstop than Alfaro. According to Statcast, he has been near the top of the Major League catcher leaderboard since 2018 -- his final season in Philadelphia before being dealt to Miami -- in three key categories.

2019 (with Miami)
Arm -- 88.3 mph (second)
Pop time -- 1.94 sec (eighth)
Sprint speed -- 28.8 feet per second (first)

2018 (with Philadelphia)
Arm -- 91.1 mph (first)
Pop time -- 1.93 sec (first)
Sprint speed -- 28.2 feet per second (second)

But Alfaro is the first to admit his game has holes. These Statcast metrics show a foundation to improve upon them. At the plate, Alfaro boasts power backed by high average exit velocity (91.7 mph, good for 22nd in MLB in 2018; 90.8 mph, 55th in '19), but he lacks discipline. Alfaro has worked on recognizing pitches and his timing by breathing between pitches and channeling a calmness. Behind the dish, Alfaro saw a drop in his performance from 2018-19. In his final season with the Phillies, he recorded nine runs extra strikes (fifth among MLB qualified catchers) and a 50.6 percent strike rate (14th). In his debut campaign with the Marlins, Alfaro ranked 53rd and 42nd among Major League catchers with -6 runs extra strikes and a 47.4 percent strike rate, respectively.

"We were working on everything like receiving and blocking, but one of the things that we just focused on was the framing part giving me more time to relax," Alfaro said. "My hands don't need be so stiff or tense. Just be more relaxed, breathe. Try not to go straight at the ball, try to create some space in between the ball and my glove so I can pull it back to the strike zone or something like that. The hard work we've been doing for those months is paying off right now."

When reports circulated earlier this offseason that the Marlins inquired about Cubs All-Star catcher Willson Contreras, Alfaro kept working. Rather than pushing him out of the organization's plans, Miami decided to build upon Alfaro's strengths.

Like López, Marlins manager Don Mattingly gave a vote of confidence on Friday. It's validation for Alfaro's effort as he reaches a critical juncture in his career.

"I don't mind saying Jorgie's our guy," Mattingly said on a Friday Zoom call. "I mean, he's our frontline guy. He'll be the guy getting the bulk of the catching. But we want him to obviously continue to improve like anybody else. And so [far we've] been happy with Jorgie."