Since Dan Altavilla first came on everyone’s radar in 2016, he’s never been what you’d call a slouch. Drafted by the Mariners in the fifth round of the 2014 MLB Draft, Altavilla took a fairly quick path through the minors: he started in Everett, skipped straight to High-A Bakersfield in 2015, and reached Double-A Jackson by 2016.
That same year, the Mariners did with Dan what they’d just done with another promising starter in Jackson — they turned him into a reliever. The other promising former starter was, of course, Edwin Díaz. With a fastball that often touches the high 90’s Altavilla’s velocity has always rivaled that of Díaz, and the Mariners saw something in him that caused them to try the same experiment.
To be honest, what they probably saw was the lack of a consistent third pitch beyond his slider and fastball. Altavilla’s fastball has always been good, and his slider has always been decent, but his changeup, which used to be his third pitch, was never very good. If you look at Altavilla back then, though, you might be able to understand why he’s had a hard time throwing a pitch that’s supposed to go a bit more slowly.
While his peers were toiling away in the minor leagues, Altavilla appears to have been toiling away in the forge of Hephaestus. All 200 pounds of him are packed into a generously-listed-at-5-11 frame. Of course, his build isn’t why he’s had issues with the changeup. Rather, it just never seemed like a pitch he was comfortable with, and the organization simply instructed him to drop it.
The past two years have seen Altavilla filling a middle relief role in the Mariner bullpen. With Edwin Díaz, 2017 Nick Vincent, and the bevy of other relief options available in years past, Altavilla hasn’t been called upon in high-leverage situations too often. That seems like it’s about to change.
Altavilla’s 2018 seemed fairly successful on the surface: he maintained a 2.61 ERA and a very-good K% of 27.1. When you look deeper, however, it seems like his numbers start to breakdown: his career-high BB% of 17.7% and career-low Soft% of 15.6% betray the struggles that led to him posting an FIP of 4.66. Altavilla would seem to be poised for some struggles.
Recently, Andy Patton over at Pitcher List argued that that may not be the case, however. Patton outlines that Altavilla’s fastball actually took a big step forward last year, as the Swinging Strike % against the pitch went from 9.4% in 2017 to 10.1% in 2018, and the .OPS against the pitch plummeted from 1.014 to 0.639.
Unfortunately, Patton notes, that improvement was offset by a massive step back in the efficacy of Altavilla’s slider. The same Swinging Strike % went from 19.2% in 2017 to 16.1% in 2018, and it became an overall much less reliable pitch.
Thankfully, there’s plenty of reason to believe that Altavilla is open to improvements. Altavilla has attended Driveline since 2013, and spent plenty of time there this offseason to try and prevent the injuries that plagued him last year. More flexible and seemingly even stronger than before, Altavilla looks to be a prime bounce-back candidate.
With a bullpen as barren as Eastern Washington in the summer time, the Mariners will need him to fulfill that bounce-back potential. And if he can, Altavilla could find himself among the most valuable players on this team.