It's been a productive first week for the Phillies' pitching staff. The requisite grain of salt must be taken because it's spring training and, in the two best pitching performances this week, they were facing teams in Clearwater that didn't travel many regulars.
On Friday, the Phillies shut out the Pirates, 3-0, using a handful of key relievers for the first time in Grapefruit League play.
Archie Bradley, Hector Neris, Jose Alvarado, Connor Brogdon, Sam Coonrod and JoJo Romero all made their spring debuts, pitching an inning apiece. That group allowed two hits and two walks in six scoreless innings, punching out eight.
Alvarado, in particular, showed the electric stuff he became known for in his four seasons in Tampa. He's a left-handed reliever with a triple-digit two-seam fastball and some of the most jarring movement in all of baseball.
Alvarado faced three batters and threw nine pitches against the Pirates. Two of them broke 100 mph, sinkers at 100.0 and 100.3. His other five sinkers were 97.3, 97.9, 98.7, 99.1 and 99.4, with his velocity progressing as the inning did.
Alvarado's best season was 2018 when he had a 2.39 ERA in 64 innings with 80 strikeouts and just one home run allowed. The quality of his stuff makes him a difficult pitcher to square up. Alvarado has allowed an extra-base hit in just 5.02% of plate appearances for his career. To put that in perspective, it's an even lower rate than Aroldis Chapman (5.13%) over the same span. Alvarado's rate is also well below those of Brad Hand, Josh Hader, Kenley Jansen and pretty much every big-league reliever during that four-year run.
"I think he can make a big impact," manager Joe Girardi said of Alvarado. "He's been a very successful reliever in Tampa, a power guy with incredible movement. Can't be a lot of fun to catch and can't be a lot of fun to hit. The key for him is to stay aggressive and I thought he did a really good job."
By stay aggressive, Girardi and the Phillies mean they want Alvarado to trust his stuff and spend more time in the strike zone. Walks have been his bugaboo. He's walked 33 batters in 39 innings the last two seasons, a number very few can pitch around and still find success. The reality is that Alvarado has so much movement on his sinker and slider that sometimes he does not know or isn't in complete control of where the ball is going.
"I think the slider he used to strike out a right-handed hitter (Friday) might have been 92 mph," Girardi said. "Imagine that. Those were fastballs years ago. He's throwing his slider 92 mph.
"Really pleased with the way he's thrown all spring, the way he's worked all spring. Before spring training started, he was here working and excited to get here."
Alvarado was the return from the Rays in Dave Dombrowski's first trade as Phillies president of baseball operations. It happened just before the new year. The Phillies bought low, trading lefty reliever Garrett Cleavinger, who may not have factored much into their 2021 plans as it was.
There were several reasons why the Rays felt comfortable trading a pitcher who just two seasons earlier served as one of their crucial back-end relievers. Alvarado has dealt with elbow and shoulder injuries the last two seasons. His conditioning worsened as 2020 progressed, with him ending the season at a weight you'd associate with a D-lineman. He also was set to get more expensive, which is always relevant with the Rays.
The Phillies will pay Alvarado, who turns 26 on May 21, $1 million this season. He is not a traditional left-handed reliever who will be used strictly against lefties. Alvarado actually has reverse platoon splits. If he can stay healthy, he appears ticketed for late-inning work, whether that's a few outs in the seventh, eighth, or perhaps even the ninth on occasion.
"Alvarado, very excited to see what he can do for us this year," Bryce Harper said Friday when assessing the Phillies' new-look bullpen.
"It makes me smile," Girardi added. "I'm pretty encouraged. It was only one day, but it was quality strikes, and there's some big stuff down there."