Pitcher Jose Alvarado of the Philadelphia Phillies in action against the Miami Marlins during a game at Citizens Bank Park on April 12, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Marlins defeated the Phillies 3-2, and Alvarado struck out his 11th consecutive batter in the game. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
By Jon Caroulis
Special to World Baseball Network
PHILADELPHIA – Phillies relief pitcher Jose Alvarado had no idea he had made history on April 12.
In the top of the seventh inning, he punched out Miami Marlins pinch hitter Garrett Hampson for his 11th consecutive strikeout, making Alvarado is the first pitcher in the post-expansion era (1961 onward) to strike out that many batters in a row.
The streak ended when the next batter, Jacob Stallings, stroked a double to left field. After getting John Berti to ground out, Alvarado ended the inning by striking out Jazz Chisholm Jr.
Eight of the 11 batters he whiffed were right handed. His sinking fastball and sweeping cutter are equally effective against batters from either side of the plate.
As of May 2, he has pitched 12.1 innings, striking out 24 and walking none, while earning five saves in five opportunities. His ERA is 0.75.
Sitting in the Phillies dugout at Citizens Bank Park, Alvarado shook his head when asked if he knew what he had done.
“For me right now, I think about coming into the game, compete, throw strikes, that’s it,” he said. “I am the same guy. You throw strikes, that’s it.”
Going to the minors, he said, was “a way to reset my mind, I am the same guy over there, same baseball, nothing changed.”
“I attack the hitter early, put the ball over the plate,” he said, and added that “my teammates [are]behind me.”
In just under a year, Alvarado changed from another hard-throwing but inconsistent reliever to one of the top bullpen arms in the game.
In late May of last season, Alvarado had an 7.62 ERA and 15.4% walk rate. Philadelphia sent him down to Triple-A Lehigh Valley to work on his mechanics and try to improve his control. After pitching four innings in the minors, in which he walked only one batter, he was recalled on June 12. In his last 42 appearances, he’s struck out 64 batters and walked only 14 with an ERA of 1.66.
So what happened in those four innings in Triple-A?
“When he got back from Lehigh last year, he started pounding the zone and hasn’t looked back,” said Phillies manager Rob Thompson, who equates pounding the zone with “throwing strikes.”
He said there were two reasons for Alvarado’s transformation.
“I think one is confidence, and two is a consistent delivery, where you get your arm in the same spot every time, just because of your balance, and things like that, and he’s done that. They worked on his delivery a little bit [in Lehigh Valley], and cleaned up his delivery a little bit, [with]more balance on the rubber, so he can get his arm in the same spot every time, and that’s been the story. He’s been dominant.”
“He’s basically the same, he’s got a 99 mph fastball and a 93 mph cutter,” he said.
The manager also said Alvarado has thrown his curveball less, which has given him better control.
“I think that’s correct, (and) the cutter is so dominant, he’s been really good, and to my mind, the best reliever in baseball right now,” said Thompson.
How dominant has he been?
Paul Casella, a Philadelphia based reporter and producer for Major League Baseball, tweeted, “Jose Alvarado’s last 30 games: 54 K’s, 4BB, 2 runs. Pitchers with 50 = K’s, fewer than 5 BB and no more than 2 runs allowed in a 30-game span: Jose Alvarado (2022-23), Kenly Jansen (2017) and Craig Kimbrel (2021).”
In his hometown of Maracaibo in Venezuela, Alvarado’s favorite sport was soccer. He said it’s “fun to run a lot.”
A physical education teacher noticed he was a southpaw, and said to him, “You throw so hard. Why don’t you play baseball?”
He began pitching in tournaments and was noticed by scouts, and signed with the Tampa Bay Rays.
He came to the United States in 2014 to pitch for Tampa Bay’s Gulf Coast League team, with mixed results. The Rays converted him into a reliever and he was much more effective. He was called up to the majors on May 3, 2017, and made his MLB debut that day.
For the year, he pitched 29 innings, striking out 29 batters and walking only nine. He spent all of the following year with the Rays, and while his record was 1-6, in 64 innings over 70 games he struck out 80, walked 29, and finished with an ERA of 2.39.
As good as 2018 was, Alvarado’s 2019 season was disappointing. He again finished with a 1-6 record but had an ERA of 4.80 and missed all of September with an injury. He was plagued by injuries the following year and appeared in only nine games.
In his first offseason as Phillies team president, Dave Dombrowski completed a three-team trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Rays in which the Phillies netted Alvarado. At the time, Dombrowski wanted to add power pitchers to the staff, and Alvarado routinely hit triple digits, albeit not always in the strike zone.
In his first year with the Phillies, he won seven games, saved five, but his strikeout-to-walk ratio was 68-47.
After the 2021 season, Alvarado and the team agreed on a one-year contract for $1.9 million. This past off-season, he and the team agreed on a three-year pact for $21 million.
Thompson prefers to assign relievers based on matchups as opposed to roles, such as set-up man or closer. One day after making a save, he had Alvarado pitch the eighth inning. Alvarado, however, says that doesn’t bother him.
“I’m here to do everything for my teammates, my city, to compete and win the game,” Alvarado said. “My manager wants me to come in the ninth, if he wants me in the eighth I come in to compete, save. I’m ready, whatever my teammates need.”