Jorge Alcala Has the Stuff of a High-Leverage Reliever

Photo Credit: Denny Medley (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Twins felt optimistic about what their bullpen could do at the beginning of the season. Even after losing Trevor May to the New York Mets, the Twins had three relievers in Alexander Colomé, Hansel Robles, and Taylor Rogers who had experience in high-leverage situations.

But their vision hasn’t panned out. Colomé has been a free-agent bust while Robles has had issues with his control. Rogers has rebounded from a rough 2020 season, but he could be on the trading block, meaning there’s a lot of uncertainty about the future of the relief corps.

But Twins fans hoping for a better 2022 should know this, Jorge Alcalá has the potential to be a high-leverage option in the near future.

Minnesota acquired Alcalá in the 2018 trade that sent Ryan Pressly to the Houston Astros. While Pressly blossomed into a shutdown reliever, Alcalá possessed a fastball that topped out over 100 mph and was considered one of the better pitching prospects in Houston’s system.

Alcalá was placed at Double-A Pensacola, where he struggled as a starter. He made 16 starts and posted a 5-7 record and 5.96 ERA in 26 games. But the Twins were desperate for bullpen help, and they decided to try him out as a full-time reliever, making him a September callup. He threw 7.2 scoreless innings with 11 strikeouts with the Twins in 2019 and built momentum heading into 2020.

His success in an admittedly small sample size carried over to last season, where Alcalá appeared in 16 games. Alcalá showed plenty of positives over 24 innings, including limiting opposing hitters to an 86.7 mph exit velocity. Armed with a fastball that averaged 96.9 mph, Alcalá compiled a 28.7 percent strikeout rate and went 2-1 with a 2.63 ERA.

Alcalá hasn’t taken a definitive step forward this season, but he’s still showing signs of developing into an elite reliever.

Want a positive sign? His ability to miss bats has improved greatly this season. He’s forcing opposing hitters to chase 34.6 percent of the time, which is in the 95th percentile of all major league pitchers, after improving his slider and four-seam fastball.

The soon-to-be 26-year-old has limited hitters to a .191 average against his four-seamer and a .205 against his slider. While Alcalá’s velocity has gone up on both pitches, he’s also seen an increase in his whiff percentage going from 22.8 percent on his four-seamer in 2019 to 25.6 this season. While his whiff percentage on his slider has gone down, his 34 percent rate is something to work with moving forward.

So if Alcalá is seeing gains in these areas, why hasn’t he been a shutdown reliever this season? It starts with his approach on the mound, which has seen him throw more pitches in the strike zone.

Alcalá threw 41.4 percent of his pitches in the zone according to Statcast during his brief stint two years ago. That number jumped to 45.9 percent last year and up to 51.6 percent this season. Pitching coaches often instruct their subjects to “pound the zone,” but Alcalá has thrown more meatballs, which has seen his home run rate jump from 1.1 per nine innings in 2019 to 2.1 last year.

Hitters know Alcalá will eventually throw a fastball in the middle of the plate, and they have crushed to the tune of a .454 expected slugging percentage this season. However, that’s still down from .497 last year.

Whether it’s mechanics or just his approach on the mound, Alcalá has enough raw stuff to be a high-leverage reliever. The Twins have a dearth of options in the pen heading into next season, so Alcalá could be in for an increased role, which could help him reach his full potential in 2022.

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