Is Henderson Alvarez No-Hitter Proof He's Ready to Become an Elite MLB Pitcher?

Adam WellsFeatured ColumnistSeptember 29, 2013

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 19:  Henderson Alvarez #37 of the Miami Marlins pitches in the first inning against  the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on September 19, 2013 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
Greg Fiume/Getty Images

A game that meant nothing turned into one of the most exciting and thrilling moments of an otherwise dreadful season for the Miami Marlins.

On Sunday, 23-year-old Henderson Alvarez threw the fifth no-hitter in franchise history with four strikeouts and one walk in a 1-0 victory over the Detroit Tigers. 

Since these are the Marlins we're talking about, nothing ever comes easy. Alvarez pitched nine no-hit innings, but the offense did nothing against Detroit's pitching. It took a walk-off wild pitch with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth to secure Alvaraez's spot in the history books. 

The Marlins, who finished the season 62-100, turned the few fans they had against them last winter when owners Jeffrey Loria decided to trade away all the free agents they had just spent big money on the previous year. Loria is still the scourge of Major League Baseball.  

But this was not a completely wasted year. In addition to Alvarez's no-hitter, there were the debuts of cornerstone players like Christian Yelich and Jake Marisnick. The Marlins also had one of the most-talked about new superstars in the sport and a possible Rookie of the Year in Jose Fernandez. 

There are a few things to actually be excited about, but this no-hitter gives us a chance to properly focus on Alvarez and his future in baseball. Sometimes, we can overreact to a single-game performance and wonder what it means (Philip Humber's perfect game). However, this is different for two reasons. 

First, Alvarez is so young, and his career is just getting started. A lot of times, we will see an aged pitcher with a track record of success or failure pitch this kind of game, so there isn't a lot to discuss about the pitcher's upside. 

Second, while not as highly regarded as some of the players the Marlins got in the trade with Toronto last year (Marisnick, Justin Nicolino), Alvarez is not that far removed from being in the conversation as a key piece of the Blue Jays' future. 

Everyone's definition of elite changes, but the first thing that you need to see from anyone with the potential to get there is stuff. 

PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 06:  Henderson Alvarez #37 of the Miami Marlins pitches in the first inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the game on August 6, 2013 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The scouting reports on Alvarez prior to him being called up in 2011 were very positive, though some of the questions revolved around why the stats didn't support the stuff. 

In his analysis of the Blue Jays-Marlins trade, ESPN's Keith Law (Insider subscription required) wrote that Alvarez wasn't quite as electric as he once was:

Henderson Alvarez had a plus fastball and plus changeup when he was coming up in the Jays' system, but the fastball has backed off a little and he has been unable to keep his changeup down in the zone, while he has never developed an average breaking ball, all of which has dropped his outlook from potential No. 2 starter to probable reliever. 

His fastball velocity remains largely the same this year as it was the previous two—at 93.1, according to Fangraphs—but the slider velocity has dropped nearly two miles per hour from last year (84.0 to 82.1). Meanwhile, the changeup is actually being thrown harder than ever at 88.5 mph. 

That last part is important, because without much separation from the fastball, hitters will be able to start their bat early and drive the ball. He also doesn't miss bats at the rate you want to see from a top-tier pitcher, averaging only 5.1 strikeouts per nine innings this season and 4.5 for his career. 

Even in the no-hitter, it's not like Alvarez was completely dominant. He had just the four strikeouts and needed to rely heavily on his defense. 

One thing that does work in Alvarez's favor, though, is his ability to generate ground balls. He had 14 on Sunday and has a career rate of 55.4 percent. 

Baltimore's Brian Matusz is a cautionary tale for pitchers like Alvarez, who have a lot of hype and stuff to start but can't handle the workload.
Baltimore's Brian Matusz is a cautionary tale for pitchers like Alvarez, who have a lot of hype and stuff to start but can't handle the workload.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The other big questions when it comes to being an elite pitcher is health. For relievers, this isn't as vital, because the number of innings they are throwing is far less than that of a starter, but the only way to add value is playing. 

Alvarez is an undersized right-handed pitcher at 6'0". Ideally, you want a pitcher, right- or left-handed, to be at least 6'2" so he can create downward plane on his pitches. It is also a (sometimes) cheap stereotype that smaller pitchers can't handle 200-plus inning workloads. 

That didn't bother Alvarez in 2012, when he made 31 starts covering 187.1 innings for the Blue Jays. But it is important to keep in mind that one year does not a career make, especially for pitchers who can break down in the blink of an eye. 

Fast forward to 2013, when Alvarez missed the first three months of the year with shoulder inflammation and made just 17 starts. It's not a situation where alarm bells need to be sounded, especially since he was able to make every start the final three months of the season, but it is something that should be kept out in the open. 

With all of this information out there, what is Alvarez's future?

Not to rain on his parade, or that of the fans celebrating this great moment, but it is hard to see elite upside in his future.

I understand the desire to give Alvarez more time to develop before making a rash judgement, as he is so young, with only 353.2 MLB innings under his belt. But as someone who writes about and evaluates prospects, Alvarez's trajectory hasn't changed at all since the no-hitter. He's still someone who will always be reliant on a great defense and doesn't miss enough bats to profile as elite. 

That's not to say Alvarez won't carve out a solid career as a back-end starter or, in the event he regresses and/or injuries become a constant problem, a reliever. But you have to be really special to be considered among the elites. 

Still, Alvarez had a tremendous moment on Sunday. That's more than a lot of players throughout the history of baseball can say. 


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