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About Last Night: Dan Altavilla, Bullpen Ace

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The powerful righty is ready for his close-up

Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Last July, I wrote this about Dan Altavilla, who was, at the time, a recently-converted starter who only started getting save opportunities in AA Jackson after Edwin Díaz was promoted to the majors. Back then, I had a question mark after the word “ace.” After this past series against the Astros, it’s time for that question mark to be blasted into space. Steve Cishek seems to slot readily into the set-up man position with the emergence of Edwin Díaz, world-beating closer (literally world-beating, after his performance in the WBC). But Altavilla had a coming-out party against Houston, something that might be buried in the team’s 1-3 record. Dan Altavilla is no longer a reliever to use in building a bridge to the back end of the bullpen; he is something to build towards.

Altavilla’s first appearance as a Seattle Mariner came in late August, in an away game against the White Sox where the Mariners would get trounced, 9-3. Altavilla entered when the score was still 9-2, against the heart of Chicago’s order: Melky Cabrera, Jose Abreu, and Todd Frazier. Even in a blowout, that’s a tall order for a rookie, but Altavilla induced groundouts from Cabrera and Abreu, and finished up with a strikeout of Frazier. Later, his teammates gifted him with the strikeout ball in an actual white sock. He was later leaned on to bail out pitchers who had gotten in trouble: the next day, Taijuan Walker (he allowed an inherited runner to score from third on a sac fly); and then in the next series, Steve Cishek/Vidal Nuño working in relief (he also allowed an inherited runner to score, this time on a single to Jonathan Lucroy, before coming back to get the final out of the inning); and after that, Arquimedes Caminero, who was threatening to give back a seven-run lead against the Angels, when he again allowed an inherited runner to score, and had to be bailed out by Díaz. In the next series, against Texas, he was relegated to mop-up duty: working the ninth in a game where the Mariners had an 8-run lead, or another ninth where the Mariners had a seven-run deficit. This would become a pattern for the remainder of the season: occasionally, Altavilla made his way into close games, but other than two games against Oakland with leverage indexes over 2, he mostly pitched in blowouts.

Despite finishing his brief stint in the majors with a 0.73 ERA and a 2.01 FIP, on depth charts leading into the 2017 season, Altavilla was listed as a fringe bullpen member; some prognostications didn’t have him making the team at all. Altavilla responded by striking out ten batters in eleven innings of work over spring training, and after making his first-ever Opening Day roster, he’s come into the 2017 season with a vengeance. Jake wrote this excellent piece on a change in Altavilla’s slider grip that may cause the pitch to become even more deadly. Yesterday, he struck out the side in an inning of work against the heart of Houston’s order, striking out Altuve, Correa, and Gurriel (although it should have been Beltrán instead, who got lucky on a check swing that happened to roll fair for an infield base hit, because baseball). He’s already collected five strikeouts in just shy of three innings of work.

Breaking down these ABs: He gets ahead of Altuve 1-2 before missing with a high fastball that touches tripe digits. Altavilla’s countenance may be serene—his only celebration after striking out the heart of the Astros’ order was to pound his fist into his glove and do kind of an Arthur-meme fist clench—but you can see a little of what this AB means to him when he lets his arm fly and hits a hundred on the gun here. He sticks with that fastball on the next pitch, and all the diminutive Altuve can do is foul it off, before Altavilla finishes him off with a slider. One major out down.

For Correa, Altavilla varies his approach slightly, and peppers sliders all around the plate to try to tempt him, Wile E. Coyote-style. Correa lays back, and so by the time the 97 mph fastball comes at him, he’s late on it. Next, Altavilla sends him a 90 mph slider that just misses a bit and could have been trouble, but Correa hits it just foul, reaching over the plate.

And this, more than any other moment, is Altavilla’s biggest pitch of the night, and really, of the season so far. He’s even in the count, and Correa has just crept over the plate to spoil a good pitch, and Altavilla—in his quiet, polite, Pennsylvanian way—is pissed. As he said later in a postgame interview, “When you see guys diving over the plate, you wanna let them know that you’re in there.” That plate belongs to him, and he does not appreciate interlopers. Altavilla buzzes a fastball at 98 mph right at Correa’s head. It has the intended effect: it backs Correa off the plate. He ends the at-bat with a filthy slider, 95 mph right at the knees that catches the outside corner of the plate and literally has Correa hoppin’ mad:

Altavilla, a kid out of a Division-II college who was a starting pitcher at Jackson this time last year, is now battling All-Stars; battling, and winning. Say what you will about bullpen roles, but it’s a waste of Altavilla’s talent to have him mopping up. With his deadly fastball-slider combo, he’s a very-slightly-lower velocity version of Díaz himself, and should be used either as a set-up man, or to spell Edwin as a closer. The Mariners have built a team that isn’t an offensive powerhouse, that will probably play several close games. It’s a team that needs two reliable closers. Luckily, in Díaz and Altavilla, they have them.