The 2 things holding Jorge Alfaro back from being a difference-maker

Throughout the offseason, we’ll take a look at the best and worst aspect of each key Phillie’s season and look ahead at what the goal should be for 2019.

Let’s start behind the plate with Jorge Alfaro.

The best: Power, pitch-framing

The worst: Whiffs, blocking

Alfaro hits the ball hard. He had the fifth-highest line drive rate of any major-league catcher at 23.2 percent, ahead of guys like J.T. Realmuto and Buster Posey. 

The issue is he doesn’t make enough contact. Alfaro swung and missed this season at 23.8 percent of the pitches he saw, a comically high rate for a major-leaguer. The next-highest rate in the NL was Javier Baez’s 18.2.

Midway through the season, I asked Gabe Kapler if Alfaro could be a productive offensive player long-term if his plate selection never improves. The gist of the manager’s answer was that Alfaro could but it would require a big cutdown of his strikeout rate. That is a major if that will define Alfaro’s career.

Too often in 2018, the Phillies’ 7-8-9 of Scott Kingery, Alfaro and the pitcher went weak out, weak out, weak out. 

Theoretically, Alfaro’s penchant for swinging and missing means wasted opportunities with runners in scoring position. Yet that wasn’t really the case in 2018. In 15 at-bats with a runner on third and less than two outs, Alfaro drove in nine runs. With two outs and runners in scoring position, Alfaro hit .344.

Still, his whiffs stuck out even on a Phillies team that struck out 103 more times than any season in franchise history. There are impressive tools there, but the hit tool is the most important in this sport. 

Catchers must be able to catch

The Phillies raved about Alfaro’s pitch-framing this season. By some metrics, he was a top-five pitch-framer leaguewide.

That’s great. But he was awful at blocking the ball. So many passed balls that even a league-average catcher catches. So many times he wasn’t able to help his pitcher by preventing a “wild pitch” many other catchers would have blocked.

There is a case to be made that the Phillies’ obsession with pitch-framing has resulted in their catchers focusing more on *snatching the ball the best possible way* than simply catching it.

To which I’d ask: What is more important, buying your pitcher an extra strike here and there, or preventing a runner from advancing?

Mathematically, it’s closer than you think. But you have to go beyond merely the numbers. For example, Alfaro caught 31 of Aaron Nola’s 35 starts. Nola is an elite pitcher who gets respect from umpires. All the pitches Alfaro was credited with “framing well” for Nola … who is to say the ump’s respect for Nola always being around the strike zone wasn’t equally or more so the reason for those extra strikes?

2019 goals

Alfaro’s main focuses this offseason need to be:

1. Laying off fastballs over his head and breaking balls well off the plate

2. Improving his blocking fundamentals

To the first point, there were so many plate appearances this season when Alfaro got behind in the count and just gave up. So many times a pitcher threw a waste pitch nowhere near the plate and he swung anyway. Think about this: Alfaro was in an 0-2 count 74 times this season and 54 of those at-bats ended in a three-pitch strikeout. That is ridiculous.

But despite these negatives, the Phillies still might have something good and valuable in Alfaro. He has the power, the throwing arm, and — despite the whiffs — a career .270 batting average with an OPS one percent below the league average.

He just needs to make major strides in his age-26 season to be the difference-maker the Phillies believe he can be. Especially if Wilson Ramos doesn’t come back.

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