On paper and on the diamond, Marlins pitcher Henderson Alvarez stands out.
During an off day, Alvarez plays soccer in left field with a childlike exuberance, diving for headers and booting balls into the stands. All the while, he displays his Venezuelan spirit with a yellow, blue and red bandana.
Alvarez does not hide his eccentricities on the mound, either. He starts each game with an original windup that begins with him stepping forward and bending down until his chest is parallel to the ground, as his arms dangle at his sides. Alvarez then returns his left leg to the rubber, straightens up with his arms high above his head and falls into a more traditional motion.
Then, Alvarez begins to work.
The 24-year-old utilizes a goofy-looking, super-slow curveball and a fastball that reaches the mid-90s, but his game is really built around a sinker that begs batters to ground out.
Heading into Tuesday’s start against the Philadelphia Phillies, Alvarez’s unique style has helped him post a 2.32 ERA, the lowest among Miami pitchers with at least 40 innings pitched and good for sixth in the major leagues.
“I've been having the best first half of my career since I’ve been up to the big leagues,” Alvarez said over the weekend. “I've been working hard to keep having success and winning games.”
Alvarez’s ERA is a point lower than any he posted in his previous three seasons. The first two of those came in Toronto before Alvarez was part of a blockbuster trade in which the Marlins sent Jose Reyes and others to the Blue Jays.
Alvarez finished his final year in Toronto with a 4.85 ERA. Now he has posted an ERA better than either of the big-name pitchers he was traded for: Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle.
“Sometimes change can be bad for people and sometimes it can be good, and I think for him it was a good change,” Marlins catcher Jeff Mathis said. “I think he’s comfortable here.”
This year, Alvarez also leads the National League in fewest pitches used per at-bat.
Mathis said Alvarez likes to draw weak contact early in at-bats rather than working batters in the hopes of striking them out. In a jam, though, Alvarez is capable of getting a strikeout, Mathis added.
Thanks to his approach, Alvarez has been able to work deep into games without reaching unhealthy pitch counts. He has tallied a league-high three shutouts as a result.
That type of reliability has been particularly valuable for a Marlins team that ranks third in the majors in bullpen innings.
“It’s key,” manager Mike Redmond said of Alvarez’s efficiency. “Especially with us losing Jose [Fernandez], we needed some guys to step up and eat those innings.”
Alvarez’s strong start could also benefit him personally. In the short term, he has a chance of becoming a 2014 All-Star if he can put together two more strong starts before the mid-July break.
Miami has not sent two players to the All-Star Game since 2010.
After the season, Alvarez will be able to negotiate a new deal or go into arbitration for a raise from his current salary, which is estimated to be a little more than $500,000 (just over 1 percent of the club’s total payroll), because 2014 will be the pitcher’s third complete season in the majors.
“This is a big year for him,” Redmond said.
Redmond also said he hoped Alvarez could pitch 200 innings this year, and that reaching that plateau would set the pitcher apart from others in the league — adding to the ways Alvarez is a little bit different.
The Marlins made room for Joseph by designating outfielder Brent Keys for assignment.