As the unofficial closer of the future for the Angels, R.J. Alvarez slips into our top five as the highest ranked reliever in the Angel organization.
Position: RHP Highest Level: Advanced-A
Bats: R Throws: R Height: 6'1" Weight: 180
Age: 22 Born: 6/8/1991
2013 Rank: #8
2013 Season Stats
Advanced-A: 48.2 IP, 4-2, 4 SV, 2.96 ERA, 34 H, 27 BB, 2 HR, 79 SO, 2.28 FIP, .327 BABIP, 35.0 GB%
AFL: 10.0 IP, 0-1, 0 SV, 6.30 ERA, 12 H, 2 BB, 0 HR, 12 SO, 1.70 FIP, .375 BABIP
Fastball = A
No better way to describe Alvarez’s fastball than to say it’s an “A” grade pitch. Sits 95-96, touches 97 probably once every batter and when he doesn’t care necessarily where the pitch is going and just wants to throw something as hard as he can, he dials it up to triple digits. Unlike many hard throwers though, Alvarez’s fastball has considerable movement to it. Even the most elite of minor league hitters looked over-powered against Alvarez’s high heat.
Offspeed Pitches = A
R.J. has a plus slider with tight spin and very good side-to-side movement on it. He also began throwing his changeup more often this season, which was a surprising turn of events. You’d figure that he’d just focus on his two pitches and mowing through the competition but Alvarez actually made some strides with this pitch in 2013 to the point where it’s an above average offering. Now if only the Angels starters could learn to throw their changeup as quickly as Alvarez did.
Control = D
There really isn’t anyway to sugarcoat a 5.0 BB/9 except to say he still got the job done. Alvarez has a ton of trouble finding the strike zone and has a lot of work to do in this department.
Command = C
When Alvarez was in the strike zone, he did seem to show some acumen for spotting his pitches where they needed to be. Whatever, when you throw as hard as he does you can get by with average showings in these two departments.
Mechanics = F
Seriously, just about everything wrong you could think of when you think about pitching mechanics, R.J. Alvarez does. He throws just a tick above sidearm, throws across his body, muscles the ball up there, places stress on his elbow and shoulder, shows poor balance, doesn’t finish his delivery and falls off the side of the mound after throwing the pitch. The great thing is, he’s a reliever, he doesn’t need pretty mechanics, he just needs to get outs. And also because he’s a reliever, you need not worry about the future. Most relief pitchers have a major league career that comes and goes in the blink of an eye, so to worry about some potential future arm issue Alvarez may face is pointless because in all honesty, it doesn’t matter how he gets the ball across those 60 ft. 6 inches, just that he does it effectively. There’s also some research that suggests some bodies are made to withstand high heat for long periods of time (Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson) and some bodies just can’t (Mark Prior). Pretty mechanics can only make so much of a difference and ultimately it may come down to genetics. For all we know, Alvarez may be pumping mid to high-90’s heat for the next decade and not be any worse for the wear.
Performance = B+
This is definitely a two-sided coin. On one side, Alvarez posted video game numbers in Advanced-A Ball, absolutely demolished hitters and then went to the AFL and did the same thing. On the other side of the coin, he walked a ton of batters, spent a year at a developmental level many saw as a pointless step and showed a lack of consistency and unfavorable splits. What we can take away from this performance is that his 2.96 ERA was actually inflated by playing his road games in the Cal League and as silly as it seems to say, he’s likely better than that. However, you can bet that more advanced hitters in AA, AAA and the majors will surely take advantage of his inability to consistently throw strikes and that he’s really going to need to battle in order to meet continued success.
Projection = A
This is about as high as a reliever could project. Alvarez is a dynamic reliever and when he’s doing everything right, he’s about as untouchable as you could get, much like K-Rod was for the Angels. In fact, Alvarez and K-Rod have very similar arsenals at this age, so that may be a fair comp. But before Alvarez deserves such comparison, he’ll need to start throwing a lot more strikes, otherwise he may end up being Kevin Jepsen. Hard thrower, great slider, but thoroughly inconsistent and untrustworthy.
Grade as a Prospect = B
Alvarez is one of a handful of relievers in all of minor league baseball with a plus-plus fastball, plus slider, workable change and aggressive, bulldog mentality.
Estimated MLB Arrival Date = 2014/2015
I could see Alvarez making the necessary adjustments and breaking into the Angels bullpen (along with Morin and potentially Bedrosian) in 2014. But the more likely scenario suggests that a full year in AA may do Alvarez a world of good. He has a lot of little things he needs to iron out right now. He gets away with so much because of how good his fastball is, how good his slider is and how effectively he’s deployed a changeup, but he needs refinement.
2013 in Review*
It is hard not to like what Alvarez did in the minors this year. Striking out 79 batters in 48.2 innings is just an absurd strikeout rate. That's a 14..35 K/9, to be exact. With his big fastball, Alvarez missed a ton of bats, which also helped him greatly limit hits against him, surrendering just 34 all year, only two of which left the yard.
However, it wasn't all dominance for Alvarez. While he missed plenty of bats, he missed the strike zone a bit too much as well. His walk rate spiked to 4.72 BB/9 this year, up more than a full walk from his first minor league season in Low-A. While elite relievers can succeed while giving up a fair amount of walks, that's something Alvarez really needs to get under control. What is especially concerning about it is that a lot of those walks came in the second half of the season, when you typically expect to see numbers improve, not get worse.
Alvarez also had some problems with left-handed batters. Left-handed batters still struck out against Alvarez at a 12+ K.9 rate, but they also got to him for a .271 average and .229 ISO. Alvarez simply has to clean up those power numbers allowed if he ever hopes to be a late inning reliever in the majors.
That being said, Alvarez was death on right-handed batters. He faced 123 righties in 2013 and allowed a scant 15 hits, including just four doubles and no home runs. He did that with a .287 BABIP, so it really wasn't all the fluky, he just didn't let right-handers put the ball in play.
The Angels think quite highly of Alvarez, as shown by his selection for the Arizona Fall League. However, to think that he is big league ready is still a bit premature. In fact, Alvarez didn't even get an official invite to big league spring training camp with the Angels. At best, he'll be in line for a call-up in the second half of the season, but even that seems unlikely unless he makes a big jump in 2014.
That means Alvarez should be spending most of the season with Double-A Arkansas where he will face much stiffer competition. This will be the first time in his short pro career where he is going to have to rely more on his breaking ball to finish batters off rather than just smoking them with his heater. He should still find plenty of success with the Travs, but facing more hitters that can handle 95+ MPH fastballs will force him to refine his slider and work more on setting batters up. If all goes well, he should be in line for a September call-up and a legitimate shot at cracking the major league bullpen for good in 2015.
*As we do every year, the scouting reports and grades are provided by Scotty Allen while Garrett Wilson provides the 2013 in Review and Looking Ahead sections.