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2023 Phillies in review: José Alvarado

Strike one, strike two, etc.

MLB: NLCS-Arizona Diamondbacks at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

It’s December of 2020 and new POBO Dave Dombrowski, new GM Sam Fuld, and the rest of the Phillies’ brain trust are presented with the unenviable task of fixing one of the worst bullpens in the history of Major League Baseball.

Do they sign one of the hot free-agent relievers on the market - Liam Hendriks, Brad Hand, perhaps Trevor May? Do they try to make a splash trade for Raisel Iglesias or Josh Hader? Are any of these things even reasonable when your All-Star best-in-the-game catcher is still a free agent, the fans (and your best player) are demanding that you re-sign him as soon as possible, and all the while the edict from the owner’s office is to stay below the luxury tax? The answer to all of these questions is, of course, a resounding no.

Instead, Dombrowski’s first major move (and perhaps his best besides re-signing said Best Catcher in Baseball) was to work a three-team deal that would bring a hard-throwing lefty reliever to Philadelphia by way of Tampa Bay.

Two years removed from a more-than-promising 2018 campaign in which he posted a 2.39 ERA with 80 strikeouts over 64 innings, José Alvarado was coming off of an injury-plagued 2020 that made him expendable to a team whose biggest talent was recognizing talent. Dombrowski, to his credit, saw something that Erik Neander and the Rays’ decision makers didn’t and decided to gulp hard and make a deal with baseball’s Howie Roseman. It shouldn’t have ended as well as it did.

Since then, Alvarado has gone from a hard-throwing wild card to just about the most trustworthy member of the Phillies’ bullpen when healthy. After struggling in 2021 and finding himself demoted early in 2022, Alvarado came back to the majors with a vengeance, posting a 1.92 FIP and a 37.9% K rate, 3rd and 5th-best respectively among qualified relievers. More importantly, he helped lead a bullpen that was among the best in the majors, just two years removed from that unholy 2020 campaign.

So how did he follow that up in 2023?

2023 stats: 42 games (41.1 IP), 0-2, 1.74 ERA, 2.41 FIP, 64 K, 18 BB, 10 saves, 249 ERA+, 1.1 WAR

The good

Well, when he was healthy, he was just as dominant. He finished top-10 in ERA, FIP, and K/9 among relievers with at least 40 innings pitched. Even in the rate stats where he’s just good-to-average, like hits/9 and walks/9, he showed slight improvement. Alvarado, alongside Jeff Hoffman, became one of Rob Thomson’s weapons of choice against the top of the opposing lineup late in games.

Besides that, he’s just one of the most fun relievers to watch in baseball, within the lines and otherwise.

The bad

The injury bug bit pretty hard for Alvarado last year. After posting an 0.63 ERA over his first 14 appearances, he hit the IL on May 10 with elbow inflammation. He returned after a month’s absence only for the elbow to swell up again in July, keeping Alvarado out of the lineup for another seven weeks.

Perhaps because of his recurrent elbow issues, his velocity was down a touch on both of his pitches. Notably, his average sinker velocity dropped from 99.6 MPH in 2022 to 98.7 MPH last season. His cutter, which was a godsend for him after returning to the bigs a year ago, was less effective in 2023 as illustrated by Statcast data:

2022: .119 BA, .085 XBA, 87.3 exit velocity, -2° average launch angle, 55.7 Whiff%

2023: .181 BA, .153 XBA, 92.8 exit velocity, 7° average launch angle, 44.5 Whiff%

A further read of his Baseball Savant page suggests that Alvarado both a) pitched to the zone more than in previous years, including a higher number of balls left over the heart of the plate and b) had batters make more contact with his out-of-the-zone offerings. This, along with the velocity dip, coincided with an increase in hard hit percentage and home runs/9. Again, it’s very possible that this is all fixed with some offseason rest but it could also spell danger going forward.

The future

Alvarado, who turns 29 next season, will likely be a stalwart of this bullpen for the next few years as he’s under team control through 2026. When healthy, he has proven that he’s an All-Star-caliber reliever and certainly one of the most trusted arms in the Phillies’ bullpen. The question is whether or not he’ll be able to remain healthy as he continues into his prime. If he does, we could see Alvarado stick around past his current extension. Get the towel chickens ready.