Álvarez being tested early after big league jump

Top prospect overmatched by Padres' All-Star closer with game on the line

April 12th, 2023

NEW YORK -- Even after falling behind in the count to , two balls and no strikes, ’s plan was clear. With the tying runs on base and two outs in the ninth inning Tuesday, Hader delivered a 97-mph fastball above the upper limit of the strike zone. Álvarez swung through it. The next pitch was higher. Álvarez swung through that fastball, as well.

Seven times in the at-bat, Hader attacked Álvarez with upper-90s fastballs, all of them above the zone or near its northern border. Four times, Álvarez swung, fouling off one pitch before striking out on a full-count heater. The resulting 4-2 loss to the Padres at Citi Field left Álvarez wishing he would have been a bit more patient, a bit more discerning as he faced one of the game’s most intimidating closers.

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“I certainly don’t have to worry about his want-to,” manager Buck Showalter said. “The challenge up here sometimes is not having those emotional at-bats -- not only for him, but everybody.”

Álvarez, a happy-go-lucky 21-year-old who frequently displays his emotions for the world to see, is more susceptible to that pitfall than most. Of the organization’s four blue-chip prospects who began the season at Triple-A Syracuse, Álvarez is both the youngest and least experienced at the highest levels. He has played just 56 games at Triple-A or the Majors. But the Mets called Álvarez up before Brett Baty, Mark Vientos or Ronny Mauricio because of the catching need that surfaced when Omar Narváez suffered a long-term injury.

Since Álvarez is here, there is an expectation for him to produce.

“I don’t think it’s that difficult,” Álvarez said through an interpreter, when asked about keeping his emotions at bay. “But I think I also just have to wait on my pitches.”

The problem, as Showalter put it, is that “it’s the biggest jump in sports from the level you face down below to the level you face here every night.” And while MLB Pipeline’s top-ranked prospect works out the kinks in the Majors, the Mets are anxious to start winning games with a bit more consistency.

No other hitter provided much of a threat on Tuesday, as New York finished 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position and stranded seven men on base, hanging with a loss despite an effective start. The Mets are batting .202 with RISP so far this season, which is last in the National League. They rank in the bottom third of the Majors in runs per game and in the bottom half in homers, proving vulnerable to the same sorts of issues that troubled them last season.

Before the game, Showalter was asked about the nature of small sample sizes at the start of a season. How small is too small to draw meaningful conclusions? At what point does it become imperative for a team to act on what it sees?

“Very deep,” Showalter said of the question, before launching into a discussion of how, at this point of year, health matters more than anything.

While that may be true, self-scouting is also becoming important for the Mets. What to make of , for example, who is 4-for-36 on the young season? How confident are the Mets of receiving better production from their designated hitters?

These are relevant questions because the Mets have potential solutions in plain sight at Triple-A, where Baty, Mauricio and Vientos all homered Tuesday. So far, general manager Billy Eppler has resisted calling up those three despite their hot starts and the big club’s struggles.

How large a sample size is enough for him to change his mind?

Put another way, how much risk is there for additional unproductive at-bats such as Álvarez’s in the ninth?

“It’s a huge jump for guys,” Showalter said.

When Eppler sent Baty and Vientos to Triple-A on the same day in late March, he cited developmental milestones he wanted those two to achieve. For Baty, defensive improvement at third base was an important factor. For Vientos, defense and pitch recognition were both on the agenda. It remains unclear what sorts of timelines the Mets might be looking at with those two and Mauricio, who has been one of the hottest hitters in the Minors.

What’s obvious, though, is that the Mets are eventually going to need contributions from some combination of Baty, Mauricio, Vientos and Álvarez if they want to win consistently over a six-month season.