Our 2021 San Francisco Giants season reviews are now underway, and we get started with one of the unheralded heroes of the year: left-handed pitcher José Álvarez.
67 games, 64.2 innings, 2.37 ERA, 3.15 FIP, 42 strikeouts, 19 walks, 1.0 fWAR, 1.2 rWAR
Álvarez was a bit of an overlooked addition in the offseason; journeymen relievers on teams projected to have an uphill battle to .500 aren’t exactly the sexy signings that keep fans refreshing Twitter all through the winter months.
But what a signing he proved to be.
The Giants turned to Álvarez more than any other pitcher not named “Tyler Rogers,” and the lefty rewarded their trust in an old school manner.
Álvarez averaged just 5.85 strikeouts per nine innings, a hilariously low number in this era of baseball. But hitters simply couldn’t make good contact against him.
In 64.2 innings, he allowed 53 hits, with just two of them leaving the yard. He had a 50% ground ball rate, and just a 16.2% fly ball rate, the best marks of his career. Most impressive was Álvarez allowing just five barreled balls on 204 balls in play, a 2.5% rate that was in the top 1% in the Majors; similarly, his average exit velocity of 86.4% was in the top 9%.
All of it made Álvarez a very rare case. Of the 338 MLB pitchers to throw at least 50 innings this season, he was 325th in strikeouts per nine innings. Of the 13 players behind him, one had an ERA starting with an 8, one had an ERA starting with a 7, two had ERAs starting with a 6, three had ERAs starting with a 5, four had ERAs starting with a 4, and two had ERAs starting with a 3. No one came close to matching his ERA, and no one came within a run of his FIP.
Though perhaps this also helped explain why Álvarez felt so familiar to Giants fans: finishing 338th of those 338 names, but still sporting a sub-4 ERA was none other than Yusmeiro Petit.
The cynical view of Álvarez’s season is that he’s likely to regress a bit from limiting contact, but the counterpoint is that his 5.85 strikeouts per nine is far and away the lowest of his career, and that number had started with an 8 in four of the last five years before this one.
The way he achieved his success in 2020 may not be sustainable, but the success itself likely is.
Role in 2022
Álvarez has a club option for 2022. The Giants can either keep him on the roster for $1.5 million, or buy him out for $100,000.
It seems all but a guarantee that the Giants will pick up the option, and Álvarez will play a similar role in 2022: getting the Giants out of many jams; pitching late in games but not in the ninth inning; and appearing in a whole bunch of games.