Miami Marlins pitcher Henderson Alvarez is an enigma. Despite a fastball that regularly hits the mid-90s, he doesn’t strike anybody out. While strikeouts aren’t the key to being a good pitcher, they sure help a lot. That’s why it was so surprising when Alvarez posted a 2.65 ERA over 187 innings last season. Alvarez did that with the seventh-lowest strikeout rate among all starting pitchers. Strikeouts aren’t everything, of course. There’s much more that goes into being a good pitcher, and Alvarez displays those skills often. He doesn’t give up walks, and generally keeps the ball on the ground. Those skills usually make up a very successful pitcher, but they rarely lead to a player posting the 11th best ERA in a season.
As with most of these cases, it’s easy to find regression after just a cursory glance at Alvarez’s numbers. While his BABIP was close to league-average, Alvarez posted one of the highest left on base percentages in the league. Since we know Alvarez is a guy who relies on contact for outs, this is significant. If that number falls back to his previous career-norms, Alvarez’s ERA is going to tumble with it.
Now, let’s just assume this is a new skill Alvarez has acquired. Let’s assume he’s somehow become a better pitcher with men on base. It’s unlikely, sure, but it’s possible. Alvarez gets a lot of ground balls, which can lead to double-plays. On top of that, maybe he gets some weak contact. Again, we’re just going to assume he can do it again.
Even if Alvarez basically puts up the same numbers, what are the chances he repeats his elite ERA? In order to figure this out, we can see how often similar pitchers have posted similar numbers in the past. Since 1969, there has been 154 individual pitching seasons where a pitcher posted similar strikeout and walk rates to Alvarez, and posted an ERA- below the league-average. Last season, Alvarez’s ERA- was 72, so let’s shorten the list a little more. If we take every pitcher on the list who posted an ERA- of 80 or lower, we’re left with a sample of 51 pitchers.
All of these players were able to post elite ERAs while employing the same skill set as Alvarez. Of course, the question we really want to know is, how many of them were able to do it again? Just looking at the initial list, there are four pitchers who appear more than once. Those pitchers are Mark Buehrle, Greg Maddux, Jamie Moyer and Mike Mussina. Buehrle actually appears three times. All four of those guys were able to post the same numbers more than once with an identical skill set to Alvarez.
Problem is, two of those pitchers are Hall-of-Fame caliber players, so it’s difficult to use them as comps for Alvarez. Putting any pitcher in the same company as Greg Maddux is a death sentence, and putting Alvarez in the same boat as Mussina seems nuts too. Buehrle and Moyer work a bit better, as neither saw big jumps in their strikeout rate at any point in their careers. It’s still incredibly hard to turn into Mark Buehrle or Jamie Moyer, but it’s substantially easier than being Greg Maddux.
What’s positive here is that we know Alvarez’s skill set works. Even if the strikeouts never materialize, he can still settle in as a strong pitcher. While a return to his elite ERA seems unlikely, it is technically possible. More than likely, Alvarez settles in as a Buehrle-type moving forward. There will be years when he gets hit harder, his BABIP rises and he looks like a league-average pitcher. But there will also be times where he’s on his game, getting grounders and limiting his free passes. It may rarely lead to elite fantasy seasons, but there’s value in what Alvarez does.
Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.