When we think about what it’ll take for the Phillies to finally climb out of the sub-flooring of the National League East for the first time since 2011, we often talk about how important it’ll be for guys like Aaron Nola and Rhys Hoskins to continue to be good; how it’d be great to see Aaron Altherr stay healthy; how Maikel Franco could put it all together; how newcomers like Jake Arrieta and Carlos Santana could lend legitimacy to what had become a rudderless on-field product.
What often doesn’t get first or second or third billing, far as I see it, is just how much an improved Jorge Alfaro can help in every facet of the game.
We were all very rudely reminded of just how important every single hitter on the team was on Saturday during their 20-1 obliteration of Miami. Franco and Altherr each hit a grand slam before the third inning was over. Santana’s 1,000th career hit was a three-run jack of his own. Even Vince Velasquez took the gigantic cushion he’d been afforded to settle in and pitch six incredibly respectable innings, while also collecting two hits at the plate. Everyone had a lot of fun, and we all kinda deserved it after the slog of the first five games.
But across every facet of the game last night, I’m not sure any player made a more starkly positive impression than Alfaro. It’s funny that way, because his first inning throwing error in the wake of a wild pitch was what allowed Miami to score and - if you can believe this - lead the game, 1-0. The prologue and climax of Alfaro’s evening, thankfully, would end up varying quite wildly.
At the Plate
The box score line (3-for-5, HR, 2 RBI, 2 R) paints a pretty enough picture on its own, but doesn’t tell the full story of how Alfaro went from Level 1 to Level 80 as the game progressed.
In the first inning, two batters after Franco hit his grand slam to give the Phils a 5-1 lead, Alfaro came up with two out and the bases empty. He saw four pitches: Curveball, changeup, fastball, fastball. He swung through the last two, at 90 and 91 MPH, to strike out and end the inning, an unremarkable at bat where the highest praise could be that he laid off a decent 0-1 changeup and had a good cut at the 1-1 fastball. Judging a book by its cover, the night certainly didn’t look like it was going to be super special.
But as the offense went full juggernaut, Alfaro soon found himself stepping in time. After Altherr’s grand slam in the third, the Phils had pushed the lead to 9-1, and it was past evident that Miami starter Dillon Peters was throwing beach balls. The first pitch Alfaro sees, he does this to it:
I’m not a physicist, but I do have a stopwatch on my phone. That ball took roughly 0.9 seconds to travel from Alfaro’s bat to the outfield grass past Miguel Rojas. A screamer. Visually stunning, sure, but audio is kind of necessary here. The sound of the ball off the bat is impressive enough, but listen to Mike Schmidt’s reaction.
It’s one of the hardest-hit balls of the year so far, from anyone on any team.
So, that’ll help you settle in a bit. Throwing error and strikeout now firmly planted deeply in the distance reflected by his rear view mirror, Alfaro came up again in the fourth, this time with men on first and second with one out, and Marlins reliever Jacob Turner - a righty - now on the mound. Jorge was still tuned up, and took two swings at the first three pitches to go to 1-2, before eventually singling back up the middle to score Franco from second.
You can see Alfaro make the perfect amount of adjustment within this single AB. On a first-pitch fastball at the bottom of the zone, Jorge times it well, but is just on top of it and bounces it off his shinguard.
His bat speed remains marvelous, notwithstanding. Fast forward to pitch number four, and we get a bit of deja vu!
Fastball, bottom edge of the zone, a little bit more over the plate, and Alfaro smacks it so hard that, despite its first bounce coming little more than about three feet in front of the plate, its second bounce doesn’t happen until it’s cleared the infield grass and is out by second base.
That’s one Oso Fuerte.
In a vacuum, that’s not a terrible two-strike pitch by Turner. He threw it where Chad Wallach wanted it, but it stayed up just enough for it to A) be hittable and B) look similar enough to the first-pitch heater that Alfaro just missed. Keeping the same basic swing path and making the necessary micro-adjustment, Alfaro pounces. That’s a two-hit night!
But then, we have the pièce de résistance.
If you kept watching the first highlight video above, well, spoiler alert: You already know what Alfaro does in the seventh inning.
That’s a mammoth home run that clears section 101 and nearly lands in the elevated visitors’ bullpen at the farthest possible point it can. It had the broadcast momentarily fooled, because despite its thunderous sound, its straightaway flight path had both Tom McCarthy and Mike Schmidt hesitant to declare it the absolute no-doubter it ended up being. I love watching Tomas Telis violently wince at the moment of contact, probably some combination of both Junichi Tazawa missing his spot in the worst possible way, and also because the shockwave of that hit probably radiated outwardly from Alfaro’s bat in some spherical way that physically slapped him a little.
That’s just art.
Behind the Plate
For all the fireworks Alfaro provided while hitting, he also had a role in helping Vince Velasquez stay on the rails after a rocky first two innings. Through those two, VV threw 53 (!) pitches, got into six full counts, allowed four hits, struck out three but somehow walked none, and permitted one run with an assist to Alfaro’s errant throw to third.
After the Phils granted him a reset, and then a four-run cushion, VV and Alfaro clearly made it a point to go heavy on fastballs in an attempt to get Vinny that much more comfortable with his feel while there was breathing room. It didn’t work perfectly. Velasquez threw 27 pitches in the second, 22 of which were fastballs, and only two among those resulting in whiffs. In fact, despite throwing 29 more pitches Saturday than he did in his rough season debut against Atlanta, Velasquez generated two fewer whiffs overall: Only seven, all on fastballs.
Sensing that VV didn’t have his San Diego Stuff, there was a gentle feeling of dread that Vinny would only be able to go four innings despite a plush lead, unable to get through a mostly uninspiring lineup. A quick, 12-pitch third inning turned that idea on its head, and Velasquez would eventually only need 33 pitches to complete innings four, five, and six thereafter.
Now, in a blowout like this, it’s easy to say “just throw fastballs.” But Velasquez wasn’t spotting his fastball well in the first two innings, and had to resort to pulling out his slider and curve more frequently than you probably want to see the first time through the order. A few too many of those pitches caught the middle of the plate.
When the lead ballooned, though, the approach didn’t deviate from being heavily focused on drilling the glove-side edge to righties. And Velasquez seemed to take kindly to that idea. Check out this 0-2 fastball to Cameron Maybin to start the top of the fourth:
Perfect pitch. Hits its spot, easy 95, and Alfaro receives it quietly. Maybin, probably expecting a breaking ball while that far behind, saw the lower release and probably expected it to break out of the zone; his hands twitch in reflex only by the time he’s realized it’s not bending, and the ball has already reached the plate by then.
Alfaro’s steadiness in keeping Velasquez focused on the outer half with his fastball also allowed him to rein in his breaking balls in the later innings.
We can see innings one and two flailing about a little, far too outside with the slider and grooved with the curveball. But as the battery became more grounded, the breaking balls also began to fall in line, which is what you want from deceptive, change-of-pace pitches. You want them to look like strikes and stay close enough to the zone as to induce swings on off-center pitches and induce bad contact. By the time the fifth and sixth innings rolled up and the Phils were up 17-1, the curves didn’t need to be anything more than get-me-overs.
And, of course, this discussion wouldn’t be complete without a look at one of the more athletic plays any catcher will make this year.
Here's a silly good athletic play by Jorge Alfaro too pic.twitter.com/pPxecZLFdH— The Good Phight (@TheGoodPhight) April 8, 2018
Now, drink up the context here: The score is TWENTY TO ONE, there is one out in the ninth inning, and Alfaro leaps out of his crouch and spin-o-ramas a stupidly good throw to first at max effort in spite of it all. This play is insane.
The swinging bunt dribbler gives Marlins third baseman Brian Anderson (who is 7-for-14 in stealing bases as a pro and thereby doesn’t exactly carry the reputation of a speedster) a pretty good head start. Alfaro pops up, barehands the roller in transit, and immediately swivels into a throw while his momentum continues carrying him up the third base line.
Anderson puts up a 4.56 home-to-first, which is quite slow. But by the time Alfaro reaches the baseball, 2.8 of those seconds have already elapsed, meaning Alfaro has to get into a makeshift throwing position and fire the ball from halfway up the third base line over to first in about a second-and-a-half to get Anderson. And he does it. Accurately. Incredible athleticism, and one of the better defensive plays we’ll see all year regardless of situation. The fact that he hustled like this in a nearly irrelevant and negative pressure situation should also give heart to the intangibles hunters out there, too.
UPDATE: As pointed out in the comments below, Alfaro also made a crazy good throw on a play that technically doesn’t exist, because the ball was bunted foul.
Had that ball been live, it stood an excellent chance at being a double play.
It was a huge game for so many of the Phillies’ hitters Saturday night, but Alfaro’s brand could be seen emblazoned on multiple facets of it, and his star may have shone the brightest of all because of it.