The breakout performances of relief pitchers like Blake Treinen and Josh Hader in 2018 received plenty of attention, and rightfully so. They were terrific. Someone who probably didn’t receive enough attention, though, was Jose Alvarado of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Alvarado wasn’t named an All-Star, and he didn’t pitch for a playoff team. He was, however, one of the game’s best relief pitchers last year. His 2.0 fWAR tied for sixth among all relievers. His performance last season deserved more attention. So, let’s give it some.
Jose Alvarado Could Become an Elite Closer in 2019
The Rays signed Alvarado as an international free agent out of Venezuela when he was just 16 years old in 2012. They added him to their 40-man roster after the 2016 season. Though he’d just posted a 3.91 ERA in 46 innings at High-A, the Rays still loved Alvarado’s potential and did not want to risk losing him in the Rule 5 Draft.
Alvarado began 2017 at Double-A before receiving a surprising call up to Tampa Bay and making his MLB debut on May 3. Alvarado was sent up and down between the Rays and the Triple-A Durham Bulls throughout the rest of the season. However, his performance in the big leagues was encouraging, especially for a 22-year-old rookie who had not pitched above High-A before the season.
Alvarado ended up posting a 3.64 ERA, 2.55 FIP, and 1.11 WHIP in 29.2 innings over 35 appearances. The highlight of Alvarado’s rookie season was an immaculate inning that he pitched against the Milwaukee Brewers on August 4.
Alvarado made Tampa Bay’s Opening Day roster in 2018, and he promptly went on to pitch like a guy who had no interest in ever riding buses in the minor leagues again. He ended up making 70 appearances for the Rays, posting a 2.39 ERA, 2.27 FIP, and 1.11 WHIP over 64 innings. His numbers were actually in the same neighborhood as those of Hader, who had a 2.43 ERA, 2.23 FIP, and 0.81 WHIP.
Mixing in a curveball and slider with a fastball that averaged 97.4 miles per hour and can hit triple digits, Alvarado struck out 11.25 batters per nine innings. That’s an impressive rate, but what sticks out the most when looking at Alvarado’s numbers is that he has been nearly impossible to hit home runs off of. It was impressive that Alvarado only gave up one home run during his rookie season in 2017. It was incredible that he again only gave up one homer in 2018 while pitching more than twice as many innings. His career rate of home runs per nine innings is 0.19.
As the season wore on, Alvarado was more than impossible to hit home runs against. He was nearly impossible to hit at all. In 12.1 innings of work in August, opposing batters slashed just .100/.143/.175 against Alvarado, striking out 17 batters. That is good for a rate of 12.41 per nine innings.
In September? Alvarado struck out 18 batters in just 7.2 innings, an absurd rate of 21.13 per nine innings. Overall, once the calendar turned to August, Alvarado struck out 46.7% of the batters he faced for the rest of the season.
Sergio Romo served as Tampa Bay’s primary closer last year, but he’s a free agent, and the Rays seem ready to hand the role to Alvarado. He did get a little bit of closing experience last season, recording eight saves, so the role will not be completely foreign to him.
The closer could be an important role for the Rays this season. This is a team with postseason aspirations, and this is also a team that’s played a lot of close games over the last couple of years. Their 59 one-run games were the most any team played in 2018. In 2017, Alex Colome led Major League Baseball with 47 saves, despite playing for a team that only won 80 games. There’s a good chance that Alvarado will be asked to close out a lot of close games this year, and the Rays are hoping these will be meaningful games, too.
Of course, the Rays have become somewhat famous for not always doing things the traditional way. They will not limit Alvarado’s usage strictly to save situations. There will be times that they bring him in for other situations when they feel the need to. They may not even officially name a closer. Make no mistake, though: when the Rays are looking to close out a tight game this season, Alvarado will be who Kevin Cash hands the ball to more often than not. If he can repeat his 2018 performance, maybe 2019 will be the year Jose Alvarado becomes a household name among baseball fans, similar to the way Blake Treinen and Josh Hader did last year.
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