The two best things about the Miami Marlins the past two seasons have been Giancarlo Stanton's prodigious power and the rapid emergence of Jose Fernandez as a true ace. Then you add in Nate Eovaldi, who possessed the highest average fastball velocity of any pitcher who threw 100 innings last season and has a 23:3 K:BB ratio this season. Center fielder Christian Yelich is building upon his good rookie season, improving his OPS by more than 50 points in the early part of the season. Adeiny Hechavarria is making strides at the plate, lowering his strikeout percentage for the second season in a row and batting a surprising .319. One could almost be excused for overlooking a 24-year-old pitcher who yielded only two homers in 102 innings last season and capped 2013 off with a no-hitter on the last day of the regular season.
Henderson Alvarez twirled that no-no against the Detroit Tigers. But he’s got a comparatively lackluster strikeout rate (4.5 per nine through 2013) and a brilliant, but unsexy, 55.3 percent career ground ball percentage. On a staff full of power arms, he can get lost in the shuffle, especially given the way he started 2014. In his first three starts, he yielded 25 hits and seven walks against only 10 strikeouts in 14⅔ innings. He didn’t make it past the sixth inning in any outing.
Furthermore, Saturday night, he was facing a Seattle Mariners team with five players in the lineup that had batted a collective .353 against him.
But something clicked for Alvarez against Seattle. Perhaps it was the presence of manager Lloyd McClendon in the opposing dugout. McClendon happened to be the hitting coach for the Tigers for that no-hitter in 2013. Perhaps it was time for regression to the mean from Alvarez’s .444 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) this season (it was .285 through 2013). Despite the familiarity of some of the opposing batters, the Mariners' impatient approach and lack of good contact (26th in walk percentage, 25th in line drive percentage and tied for 23rd with 3.77 pitches seen per plate appearance going into the game) might have helped. Whatever the case, he was wickedly efficient and brilliant in a 90-pitch, two-hit, complete-game 7-0 shutout of Seattle at Marlins Park.
Alvarez was perfect through the first five innings, needing only 53 pitches and allowing only one fly ball. He kept the Mariners at bay with a four-seam fastball that touched 95 mph, a power sinker that topped 92 most of the night and a smattering of changeups and sliders. Meanwhile, the Marlins pieced together single runs in the third and fourth.
With a 2-0 lead heading into the sixth, Alvarez yielded a solid leadoff single to center by Dustin Ackley and then promptly induced Mike Zunino into a 5-4-3 double play, part of the 16 ground ball outs he tallied on the night.
Alvarez’s only other blemish on the night came on a double just over the third-base bag by Zunino with one out in the ninth. Two more infield groundouts, and he had his third career complete game and a shutout.
His BABIP for the season is now down to a more reasonable .329, and he’s now allowed only two hits in his past 18 innings with McClendon in the same building. Perhaps he should carry Lloyd’s baseball card in his back pocket from now on.
Diane Firstman writes for Value Over Replacement Grit, a SweetSpot Network blog.