NEW YORK — With the bases loaded and one out in the fifth inning of Saturday’s victory over the Mets, Phillies manager Joe Girardi made a call to the bullpen. José Alvarado was tasked with tidying up a mess made by Phillies starter Kyle Gibson. The only issue is that Alvarado has a reputation for creating messes of his own.
In a situation that many thought would end in disaster, Alvarado dominated New York’s Eduardo Escobar and Jeff McNeil. He hit 100 twice on the radar gun and got both hitters to chase his 94-mph cutter/slider. He stranded the bases loaded.
For many, it’s surprising that Girardi would even think about trusting a guy as unpredictable as Alvarado. He has thrown three wild pitches already this season. If the Phillies did not have J.T. Realmuto, one of the best blocking catchers in the sport, that number could be a lot higher. Command is not his forte.
Yet somehow, Alvarado has quietly proven to be a trustworthy arm in high-pressure situations. Dating back to 2021, no other Phillies reliever has come into the game with runners already on base more frequently than Alvarado. No other reliever has also had as much success with stranding those runners than Alvarado.
Alvarado has only allowed seven out of 36 inherited runners to score since joining the Phillies. His 19% inherited runners scored percentage in 2021 was 20th best among major league relievers who inherited at least 20 runners on base.
With runners in scoring position, hitters are batting .165 with a .639 OPS against Alvarado since 2021. The caveat to that is he’s also walked 27 batters with RISP and opposing hitters are getting on-base at a .385 clip. He’s so far only walked two batters in 2022.
Through the first month of the season, Alvarado is both working ahead in the count more often and getting hitters to chase out of the zone more frequently. His first-pitch strike percentage is up from 50.8% in 2021 to 72.4% in 2022. Alvarado ranks in the 88th percentile in chase rate at 34.5%, which is up by more than 10 percentage points compared to 2021. Last season, Alvarado ranked in the eighth percentile in that same category.
While all of these improvement are still in a small sample size, it’s at least encouraging that Alvarado has gotten better in certain areas that have historically been a struggle for the 26-year-old.
Oftentimes, many are quick to dwell on the bad with Alvarado. He does walk too many batters and have a tendency to completely miss the catcher’s mitt. Bad Alvarado outings come with a higher level of frustration among fans. Nobody wants to see a reliever on their favorite team lose all sense of command late in games.
But there is plenty to like about Alvarado. Along with his ability to pitch well with runners on, Alvarado has dominated against left-handed batters (.433 opponent’s OPS against lefties since 2021), induced grounders at a high rate (50% GB rate in 2021) and has suppressed extra-base hits (.320 opponent’s slugging percentage since 2021). Not to mention, he can throw 100-mph sinkers. Hitters swing-and-miss at his main put-away pitch, the cutter, more than half the time he throws it. Those are all things you’d like to see in a backend reliever.
Saturday’s performance was just one of many instances in which Alvarado successfully navigated out of a tight spot. His outing was the turning point in the ballgame and led to a Phillies comeback victory on a night they badly needed a jolt of energy.
Alvarado was that spark and it’s time he starts getting credit for just how important he is to the Phillies bullpen.
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