Mets rookie Francisco Álvarez making case to stay: ‘He’s growing up on us’

CHICAGO — Francisco Álvarez recognized the signs of struggle. It didn’t matter that David Robertson was 38 years old with 15 years of experience while Álvarez was a 21-year-old rookie catcher. A month ago, deference might have stopped Álvarez from intervening. Not anymore. So, with the outcome hanging in the balance late in a recent game against the Nationals, Álvarez considered Robertson’s high pitch count, asked the home plate umpire for time and then walked toward the mound. It seemed like an interesting time for a chat; the count just became full. So what? In April, Francisco Lindor had instructed Álvarez to offer help when necessary. Now, conviction told Álvarez the same thing.

Álvarez placed his arm over the shoulder of Robertson, who was showing the telltale signs of fatigue. Sweat. Blank expressions. Non-competitive pitches. Álvarez gave Robertson the break he needed. With Álvarez, Robertson laughed. After the exchange, Álvarez retreated to his position. Robertson’s next pitch ended the at-bat with a swinging strikeout.

“Since getting here, I’ve gained a little more confidence in myself to be able to go talk to pitchers whether it’s in the clubhouse or out on the mound,” Álvarez said in an interview through interpreter Alan Suriel. “But I’ve also gained that trust with them. We have that common trust where we know we are trying to do the best for each other.”

David Robertson and catcher Francisco Álvarez. (Dylan Buell / Getty Images)

Since his recall on April 8, Álvarez has improved behind the plate and at the dish so much, so quickly. The examples include the obvious and obscure. Now, the young backstop may have already proved he’s too good for the experienced and expensive Mets to send back down once their two other catchers get healthy. Mets officials still have a couple weeks to weigh their options, and haven’t offered an indication of what they’ll decide to do.

Along with Álvarez’s development, the Mets’ personnel has seen changes, too. They recently added veteran Gary Sánchez shortly after initially inking him to a minor-league deal in part because of his power potential. It is unknown exactly how much time Sánchez has to showcase his tools before the Mets’ original 2023 catchers are set to return. Omar Narváez, who has been out since the first week of the season with a left calf strain, said he expects to start a rehab assignment by the end of the week. Tomás Nido, on the 10-day injured list with dry eye syndrome, has entered the second week of his rehab assignment, which can last until June 7. All the while, Álvarez just keeps supplying the best all-around play the Mets have seen at the catching position in quite some time.

“At the end of the day, the four of us in this situation are all a team and we want what’s best for the team,” Álvarez said. “Hopefully, Nido and Narváez can come back and get healthy. And if the manager decides that the best interest for the team is for them to play, I’ll take that in stride and will respect the decision for the team. And if their decision is for me to stay up here, I also will respect that and give my 100 percent to help the team win. Our main focus is to try to win a championship and not really care about everything else that’s going on.”

Part of the potential logjam depends on whether Sánchez will hit. He started in Tuesday’s 7-2 loss to the Cubs and went 0-for-3 with a passed ball and failed to catch a pop up in foul territory. Manager Buck Showalter said Álvarez — the only one of the four catchers who holds minor-league options — will start on Wednesday and Thursday. The Mets could carry three catchers, in theory, if they see enough DH at-bats for one of them. Over the winter, the Mets gave Narváez a two-year guarantee; he figures to play a large role when he returns. The Mets also bought out Nido’s final two years of arbitration; at the time, league sources said that a fixed price for the catcher could make him more attractive on the trade market. Narváez and Nido give the Mets a terrific defensive duo at a position where defense is what’s most valued. Though Narváez profiles as the better hitter of the two, neither was being counted on for significant offense.

The Mets had grown used to not getting much at the plate from their catchers — until now.

The Mets’ catchers haven’t ranked inside the top 15 in OPS over a full season since 2017. Last season, the Mets finished 26th in baseball with a .568 OPS from their catchers. In March/April 2023, things worsened; the .414 OPS the Mets received from their catchers ranked last. Then, coinciding with Nido’s trip to the injured list two weeks ago, Álvarez started to play more. Production followed. The Mets’ catchers have produced a .897 OPS for the month, second-best in baseball.

In 12 games and 37 plate appearances in April, Álvarez slashed .194/.216/.278 with one home run and 13 strikeouts and one walk.

In 16 games and 55 plate appearances in May, Álvarez slashed .271/.364/.604 with four home runs and 10 strikeouts and six walks.

“He’s growing up on us,” Mets hitting coach Jeremy Barnes said with a big smile before Tuesday’s game.

Álvarez’s stock as a prospect grew so high because of his bat that he became a consensus top-10 prospect. But in spring training, rival scouts cautioned that Álvarez’s swing had grown too long and it looked as if he was always swinging for a three-run home run with no one on base. When he joined the Mets in April, major-league pitchers exposed that. They attacked him with spin and fed him a steady diet of breaking balls or heaters out of the zone, using Álvarez’s aggression against him. It worked. Álvarez needed to adjust. He did so — quickly.

With Barnes, Álvarez refined his approach and preparation. Together, they tightened up his swing to get Álvarez less uphill and more direct to the baseball. Mostly, they talked, with Álvarez absorbing information and applying it. Others around the Mets say that sponge-like quality makes Álvarez special. One main message: it’s unnecessary to hit a ball 15 rows deep when you can hit one 10 rows deep. Another: be intentional when choosing to be all or nothing and bake adjustability into the swing. The Mets needed him to be more cerebral. Álvarez obliged. He no longer operates like the guy who kept whiffing at high fastballs from Josh Hader to end a game in April. On Sunday, Álvarez hit an opposite-field single over the glove of the second baseman — a “strength-hit,” Showalter later called it — in the eighth inning before getting lifted for pinch runner Starling Marte, who scored the go-ahead run.

“There’s not a human being I’ve ever met,” Barnes said, “with a bigger growth mindset than him.”

Veteran pitchers have spotted Álvarez at the stadium around 1:30 p.m. for an evening game with his eyes fixated on a computer, searching for small details.

“For a young guy, that’s really good,” Carlos Carrasco said. “He just wants to learn every day.”

Carrasco pitched in Álvarez’s first start at catcher this season. He added, “It’s a big difference from when he came here and now.” Álvarez has displayed a keen ability to frame pitches, particularly ones low around the zone, and has looked terrific blocking balls in the dirt. The simple reason for the defensive improvement that other veteran pitchers point to? He cares, works hard and he’s getting more comfortable — not always easy when tasked with handling a staff led by Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and a host of accomplished hurlers.

“He’s done a really good job of sticking with us, making adjustments, especially with the location of his glove on pitches,” Robertson said. “He does a good job of listening to what most of the veteran pitchers want to do.”

Always, Álvarez said, his confidence remained high. Of course it did. According to Álvarez, “the most important part about baseball is having confidence.” The way he sees it, if he’s not confident in himself, how can anyone else be confident in him? In January, Álvarez got a tattoo in red ink across the base of his neck. It reads in English, “The Best.”

Every morning, he said, it essentially tells him who he is. Lately, he’s had plenty of other reminders. The way things are going, who can deny him an opportunity for more?

(Top photo of Francisco Álvarez: Elsa / Getty Images)

2023-05-24 09:03:52