Marlins skipper Mike Redmond got a good chuckle this winter when his eldest son, Ryan, tried to emulate the elaborate, old-school windup Henderson Alvarez uses on the first pitch of each start.
“I said, ‘Whoa, wait a minute,’ ” Redmond said. “ ‘There’s only one guy that can do that.’ ”
Last year at times, after staff ace Jose Fernandez went down for the season in May, it felt like Alvarez was the only one who could save them.
He went from No. 3 starter in April to No. 1 option the rest of the way. Miami won 10 consecutive games from May 16 to July 6 when the 24-year-old Venezuelan right-hander was on the mound, and it led to Alvarez’s first All-Star selection in July.
Alvarez finished the year 12-7 with a career-low 2.65 ERA that ranked 11th among all qualified starters in MLB, and was one of only three pitchers with three complete-game shutouts (the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright and Tigers’ Rick Porcello were the others).
“Being an All-Star, I think last year was a big year — not just numbers-wise — but for him to prove it to himself, what he’s capable of doing,” Redmond said. “He really did a nice job filling that void for us when we lost Jose.”
Although Redmond still wasn’t ready Saturday to announce who will be filling Fernandez’s void next month on Opening Day, all signs point toward Alvarez. The current five-man rotation leaves Alvarez perfectly placed to face the Braves on four days’ rest April 6 at Marlins Park.
“It would be a thrill for me if I get it,” Alvarez said Saturday after pitching two scoreless innings in an 8-7 win over the Mets. “But if not, I’ll keep working hard to try and help the team win.”
As usual, Alvarez worked his sinker to create contact early in the count and produce quick outs Saturday. Of his 22 pitches, 16 went for strikes. He struck out the first batter he faced, Mets center fielder Juan Lagares, and produced three groundouts and a pair of flyouts to center. His only blemish: a harmless one-out single to Eric Campbell in the second.
Alvarez said he was focused on locating his pitches down in the zone to get through innings quickly. That’s something he credits Marlins pitching coach Chuck Hernandez with teaching him how to do effectively.
“In 2013 when I got here, I wasn’t a pitcher who threw a lot of bullpens,” said Alvarez, who thought it was better to save his bullets for the game.
“Chuck talked to me last year and said to do a little more bullpen work, not a lot, but enough to work on the pitches and build consistency,” he continued. “And that helped me some because he was on top of me, working with me.”
What’s next? The Marlins hope even bigger things.
Alvarez, who signed a one-year, $4 million deal to avoid what would have been his first trip to arbitration this winter, is not nearly the strikeout machine Felix Hernandez is but he has always drawn comparisons to the 28-year-old, five-time All-Star because they were born in the same city and went to the same high school.
Alvarez, who turns 25 on April 18, isn’t afraid to admit he has modeled his successful changeup after Hernandez. Alvarez said he has studied Hernandez for years and has looked up to him since he was a kid, seeking his advice many times.
The Marlins would love for Alvarez, entering his fifth big-league season, to make the same kind of jump the 2010 Cy Young winner did after his fourth season in the majors. Hernandez went 19-5 with a 2.49 ERA in and finished as the Cy Young runner-up in 2009.
A look at the numbers shows that except for strikeouts, Hernandez’s first four years in the big leagues (39-36, 3.80 ERA, 104 starts, 593 strikeouts, 216 walks, 1.319 WHIP, five complete games, two shutouts) were not much different than Alvarez’s (27-30, 3.70 ERA, 88 starts, 287 Ks, 122 BBs, 1.276 WHIP, five complete-game shutouts).
“To win the Cy Young you have to work hard, you have to have a good team, have support,” said Alvarez, who added that he loves the moves the Marlins made in the offseason to bring in veterans to the pitching rotation and the infield. “Only God knows what’s in store.”
Alvarez averaged 93.5 mph on his fastball in 2014 (13th hardest among qualified starters). What the Marlins like most is that Alvarez creates ground balls with his sinker (53.8 percent, ranked 10th among qualified pitchers in 2014).
According to Fangraphs, Alvarez averages 62.1 mph with his curveball — 5 mph slower than the next pitcher on the list. Like his unique first-pitch windup, the slow curve leaves a lasting impression.
“Every time I call a curveball I’m just expecting the kind of slower one,” Marlins catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. “I don’t know how he does it. You throw it that soft, get spin on it and throw for a strike. It’s not easy.”
ICHIRO STARTS IN CENTER
Odds are, the best young outfield in baseball isn’t going to be getting any days off, but in case Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna or Christian Yelich need a breather, the Marlins won’t hesitate to plug 41-year-old Ichiro Suzuki in at any of their respective positions.
Ichiro, who has played the bulk of his career in right field (1,824 games), made his first start of the spring in center Saturday. Last season, Ichiro made only two starts in center for the Yankees compared with 86 in right and six in left. In all, he has made just 15 starts in center over the past three years.
“Yelich can play center too, but I like Yelich playing left,” Redmond said. “I don’t know how many games he’ll play in each position, but I feel comfortable with Ichiro playing anywhere.”
Suzuki produced his first hit of the spring Saturday, an infield hit to short in the fourth inning. Also, Stanton got his first hit and RBI.