CLEARWATER, Fla. -- José Alvarado’s mother is an amazing cook, which is great -- except when he is trying to be the pitcher he wants to be.
“Arepa and ham and cheese,” Alvarado said recently at BayCare Ballpark. “Those are my favorite foods. Rice, beans, plantains, chicken and steak. It’s crazy, especially in December. It's crazy. You have pan de jamon and hallaca. It's almost like a tamale. I can't do that in December. Only four the whole month. No pork. Nothing. When we go inside to my house, it's like, 'Oh [no].' I can't pass through the kitchen because everything is on the table.”
Alvarado, 25, made it through to the other side. He entered Phillies camp last month at about 255 pounds, more than 30 pounds lighter than he finished last season. His fastball touched 98 mph in a recent live batting practice session. His slider sat at 92 mph, which is something when you consider that fastballs thrown by Phillies relievers last season averaged 92.5 mph.
Alvarado’s first impressions in camp have generated some of the most effusive praise this spring.
“Nasty,” Rhys Hoskins said.
“Electric,” Andrew Knapp said.
“Filthy,” manager Joe Girardi said. “I’m glad I get to watch it. I don’t have to hit it or catch it.”
Of course, the first couple weeks of Spring Training are not the regular season. Alvarado has not appeared in a Grapefruit League game yet, either. He will later this week. But he believes what the Phillies have seen in his early workouts are who he will be in 2021.
It is who he was with Tampa Bay in 2018.
Alvarado had a 2.39 ERA in 70 appearances that year, establishing himself as one of the best left-handed relievers in baseball. He struck out 80 batters and walked 29 in 64 innings. But he struggled the next two years. He gained weight. He strained an oblique. He had elbow and shoulder issues. He left the team for a month in 2019 because of health concerns about his mother in Venezuela. He entered last spring at 270 pounds, then stopped working out when Spring Training got cancelled in March because of the pandemic.
Alvarado did not throw much.
“It’s like only eating and staying with my family and that’s it,” he said.
Alvarado, who is 6-foot-2, ballooned to 287 pounds. He had no chance to compete once Summer Camp started in July. He landed on the injured list in August with right shoulder inflammation. He returned and pitched in the American League Championship Series, but the Rays left him off their World Series roster.
The slight sparked some self-evaluation.
“After the season I looked in the mirror and I asked myself, ‘OK, I am a young guy. I’ve got good stuff. Let’s go. I can do this,’” he said.
The Rays had seen enough by then. They traded Alvarado to the Phillies in a three-team deal with the Dodgers on Dec. 29. A few days later, he started driving an hour each way from his home outside Bradenton, Fla., to BayCare Ballpark, in Clearwater, where he worked out five days a week. He vowed to get in shape.
If Alvarado is right, he can be a weapon in the Phillies' bullpen. His sinker touched at least 100 mph 29 times over the years, but not once since July 2019. The Phils have had only one pitcher hit 100 mph since '18: Seranthony Domínguez in April '19.
Alvarado is not sure if he can hit 100 mph again, but he is not worried about that. Ninety-eight with movement will play.
Alvarado will need to throw strikes, of course. He has struggled with them, which could be seen a few times during live BP. Maybe he should just aim for the middle.
“He’s the kind of guy that a catcher can set up in the middle of the plate and just let the stuff do the work,” Hoskins said. “There’s a short list of guys in the league that can do that.”
Alvarado likes where he is right now. His mindset has improved. His health has improved. He is throwing hard.
He thinks he can keep it up.
“It's not easy,” he said. “But everything is about mentality.”
And staying out of the kitchen when his mom is cooking.