You probably don't know who José Alvarado is.
That's OK, and it's understandable. He's 23, and he's the relatively rare Tampa Bay pitcher who isn't an opener, isn't a starter, and isn't the anointed closer. He's just a pitcher, one with a 1-9 career record, for what little (read: nothing)
You probably don't know who José Alvarado is.
That's OK, and it's understandable. He's 23, and he's the relatively rare Tampa Bay pitcher who isn't an opener, isn't a starter, and isn't the anointed closer. He's just a pitcher, one with a 1-9 career record, for what little (read: nothing) that's worth. Way back in 2012, he was signed as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela. He made his debut in '17. Maybe you remember when he made a cameo at first base last year.
On Wednesday, he did this.
That's a thing that Alvarado can do. Apparently.
The inning-ending pitch was 99.6 mph from Alvarado to Charlie Blackmon, moving 14.1 inches horizontally, and it was really unfair to expect the Colorado right fielder to do much of anything against it. If you're wondering why there's an endless stream of strikeouts in baseball, it's not because of "launch angle" or analytics or anything else. It's because a pitcher you've never heard of can make a three-time All-Star look like that.
The Blackmon pitch is going to get him notice, because it looked unhittable and ridiculous, even if physics suggested it might not be as ridiculous as it looked. The thing is, however, is that you probably should know about Alvarado. When we wrote about 11 breakout names you needed to know last month, he (along with his Rays bullpen mate Diego Castillo) was on the list, for good reason. This is what we said at the time.
Meet José Alvarado! He's a 23-year-old pitcher who just had a 2.39 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 64 innings, nice enough numbers, but not ones that truly show how good he became. Over the last two months of the season, his 47 percent strikeout rate was the second best in baseball. (Yes, he struck out nearly half of hitters after Aug. 1.) By an advanced quality-of-contact measure, he was one of the 10 best pitchers in the game over the last two months, as good as Blake Treinen.
Let's expand on that. That "advanced Statcast quality-of-contact measure" we referred to there is called "Expected Weighted On-Base Average," and it's a fancy way of looking at the way a pitcher limits dangerous contact (via exit velocity and launch angle) and collects strikeouts while limiting walks, taking the effects of defense and park out of it.
From Aug. 1, 2018, through Tuesday night's games, 374 different pitchers faced at least 75 batters. Check out the top of what can otherwise be described as a "pure dominance" leaderboard.
.161 -- Ryan Pressly, HOU
.168 -- Jose Leclerc, TEX
.197 -- Trevor Bauer, CLE
.201 -- Alvarado, TB (tied with Hector Neris, PHI)
.207 -- Blake Treinen, OAK
.211 -- Edwin Diaz, SEA/NYM
(MLB average: .311)
That's an incredible list to be a part of. Treinen and Diaz are arguably the two best closers in the game. Bauer is a perennial Cy Young Award contender. Leclerc may not be well-known, but he had a 1.56 ERA last season. There's those guys, and there's also Alvarado.
In that same time frame -- from Aug. 1 on -- Alvarado had the third-highest strikeout rate, 46 percent, behind Corey Knebel and Neris. He had the 14th-lowest slugging percentage against, at .237. He may not have the same name value as some of the other pitchers either, but if we know anything about relievers, it's that they can come out of nowhere. You didn't pay attention to Pressly during his years toiling away as a nondescript Minnesota middle reliever, and the always bullpen-needy Nationals were perfectly fine trading Treinen away (albeit to get Sean Doolittle).
It's not just that that pitch only ties up lefties, either. Here he is in the same inning on Wednesday getting Mark Reynolds to fear being hit by a pitch that ended up on the outer third.
... and then using that memory to make Reynolds look foolish with a curveball. Who can think about a curveball when you're worried about a 99-mph pitch with movement?
So where does one learn to, you know, do that?
It's partially the velocity, obviously. Last year, Alvarado's two-seam/sinker velocity of 97.3 mph was the seventh-best of 361 pitchers who threw at least 50. That's always been there. That's not new. What is new, however, is the way he releases it.
In 2016, Alvarado released his fastball at 6.4 feet off the ground. The next year, it was 6.5 feet. This year, it's up to 6.8 feet. That may not sound like a lot, but you can see the difference pretty clearly in this visual put together in January by former FanGraphs writer Jeff Sullivan. (If you're wondering whether Sullivan can be considered an expert on the matter, guess which team hired him as an analyst in February: the Rays.)
That didn't add spin -- Alvarado doesn't actually have a high spin rate. It changed the angle, the action, and the movement. It appears to have changed, well, everything.
The Rays are off to a 5-2 start, thanks in large part to what looks like outstanding pitching. (Even their loss to the Rockies on Wednesday featured great arms, as it was a 1-0 defeat in 11 innings.) It's because of Blake Snell, the defending American League Cy Young Award winner, who dominated Colorado on Tuesday. It's because of Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow, the names you know, and the opener/bulk tandem of Ryne Stanek and Ryan Yarbrough.
But it's also because of Castillo, Yonny Chirinos, Jalen Beeks, and Alvarado -- the names you don't know. The pitch that Alvarado threw to Blackmon may end up serving as some kind of coming-out party, at least outside the zone of Rays fandom. It shouldn't be the last time you think about him, though. It's not going to be the last time he makes an impact.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.