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Henderson Alvarez emerges as surprise star for the Marlins

A smaller piece of Miami's blockbuster Jose Reyes trade in 2012, Henderson Alvarez has become a frontline starter with an unusual approach for a surprising Marlins team.

Before July 12, Henderson Alvarez thought he’d be spending his All-Star break at home in Valencia, Venezuela, relaxing with his family. But that day, less than 48 hours before baseball’s four-day vacation was to begin, Marlins manager Mike Redmond walked into the team’s visiting clubhouse at Citi Field and announced, “Hey, we got another All-Star!”

It was just the latest good news in what has already been a great past 12 months for the 24-year-old righthander. Alvarez pitched a no-hitter on the last day of the 2013 regular season, had his first child, daughter Brianna, with his wife, Mirley, last December, and emerged this spring as one of the most surprising starters in the National League. 

Alvarez didn’t get to pitch in the National League’s loss to the American League in Minnesota on July 15, but he has continued his strong season in the second half. Although he had to leave his first start of the second half after three innings when he was struck in the shin during a game against the Giants, he rebounded to toss eight stellar innings in a win over the Braves on July 24. That outing kick-started a five-game winning streak for the Marlins, who have moved to within one game of .500 and to the cusp of the playoff discussion in the National League, sitting just 4 1/2 games out of a postseason spot.

With a league-leading three shutouts and a 2.62 ERA, fifth-best in the NL, Alvarez has picked up right where he left off in 2013, when he posted a 1.61 ERA in his final four starts and no-hit the Tigers on Sept. 29. Despite that strong finish, Alvarez knew he had a lot of work to do when this season began.

"I came into spring training this year focusing on my pitches down in the zone," he said. "Being able to utilize all of my pitches [there] has basically been what’s helped me this year."

Alvarez proved especially helpful to the Marlins after the team lost ace Jose Fernandez, the reigning NL Rookie of the Year, to season-ending Tommy John surgery in mid-May. Starting on May 16, the Marlins won 10 straight starts by Alvarez, during which time he posted a 1.49 ERA and allowed just one home run.

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Unlike Fernandez, who ranked second in the majors last year in strikeouts per nine innings, Alvarez doesn’t go for the punchout. He averages just 5.4 per nine innings, fifth lowest among qualified starters this season, but ranks fourth in the majors in groundball/flyball ratio at 2.35.

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"The ability to keep the ball on the ground and get quick outs allows him to go deep into games," said Marlins pitching coach Chuck Hernandez. "That’s why he accomplished some of the things he has. I don’t think there’s any great halo sitting over his head that hit him like a torch of lightning. As you get a couple years into your pitching career, you start to understand what makes you effective."

Alvarez has also expanded his use of off-speed pitches. According to Fangraphs, he throws his fastball, which sits between 93 and 95 mph, just 61.6 percent of the time, a career-low. By contrast, he throws his changeup 24.9 percent of the time, a career-high and more than twice as often as he did last year, and his slider 13 percent of the time, second-highest in his four seasons.

Hernandez noted that Alvarez can also use those pitches at any point in the count and in crucial situations: “Last year, he didn’t have that ability as well as he does now.”

When Alvarez is on — like he was between May 16 and July 6 — he works quickly and goes deep into games. His 21 starts are just two fewer than the major league leaders, but he ranks only 83rd in pitches thrown and his three complete games are tied for second in the bigs.

The goal for Alvarez this season, said Hernandez, is to get him to 200 innings. He reached his current career high of 187 1/3 with the Blue Jays in 2012 and appeared to be on the cusp of becoming a rotation regular in Toronto, but he was traded to Miami that November in a deal that sent Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, among others, north of the border.

Alvarez, who was surprised to hear that he’d been dealt, has been by far the best return the Marlins got in that blockbuster trade. His 4.9 Wins Above Replacement since then, including 3.0 this season, dwarfs the total compiled by the other six players he came over with. In fact, only catcher Jeff Mathis, at 0.1, has even produced a positive WAR for the Marlins.

“It’s an honor to know that I was the best piece of the trade, just being able to come over here and do what I’ve been doing,” Alvarez said.

The trade drew backlash from fans, pundits and even Miami’s slugging sensation Giancarlo Stanton, who took it upon himself to tweet his ire. Stanton might have been placated had he known that, by the time he was introduced as a National League All-Star at Target Field less than two years later, he would be standing beside one of the new teammates he got in that trade, a pitcher who he might have to get used to seeing at the Midsummer Classic for years to come.