Francisco Alvarez Conditioned Body, Mind During Unusual 2020 Season
At first glance, it’s easy to forget that catcher Francisco Alvarez is still just a kid who longs to be near his parents.
With big hands, bulging forearms and a powerful physique, the Mets’ No. 1 prospect has been such an imposing figure that children in his native Venezuela began calling him “Troll” early in his teens.
But even a powerful 5-foot-11, 220-pound 19-year-old needs the warmth of his parents while stuck in a foreign land during the coronavirus pandemic.
Baseball brought Alvarez to the United States, but he was stuck last season in America when Major League Baseball shut down all minor league facilities and spring training sites last March at the outset of the pandemic.
Even worse, he couldn’t go back home to Venezuela.
All prospects from Venezuela were stuck in the U.S. in the spring through the summer after Venezuela closed its borders.
In the year of Covid, the Venezuelans arguably had it the worst. Unlike the Mexicans or the Dominicans, Alvarez and his countrymen couldn’t return home. Even worse, his parents couldn’t visit either.
Alvarez signed for $2.7 million in 2018 when he was 16. His parents Yolanda and Jose Alvarez spent a month and a half with him in 2019 to help him adjust to his first professional season in the U.S., when Alvarez advanced to Rookie-level Kingsport. He ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the Appalachian League, batting .282/.377/.443 with five home runs in 35 games as the circuit’s youngest position player.
Alvarez officially became an adult when he turned 18 on Nov. 19, 2019, but he had hoped to have his parents with him throughout the 2020 season.
They had planned to join him after spring training. Unfortunately for all of them, the border was closed.
“Then when everything with the pandemic happened, they said a month, two months and then three months,” Alvarez said. “Then in December my mom and dad were anxious to see me. I wanted to feel like I was with them.”
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For the first time in his life, Alvarez learned to live without his family in 2020. He essentially braved the pandemic without any familial support. Moreover, he was holed up in a hotel near the Mets’ spring training facility in Port St. Lucie, Fla., until baseball opened alternate training sites in the summer. The Mets’ was in Brooklyn.
“Well, I trained with what I could,” Alvarez said. “We were stopped. We were in a hotel. The team had us in a hotel. We looked for ways to work, to long toss and stretch and stay loose. I learned a lot about analytics.
“I watched videos of me and videos of good games to learn what they do in the big leagues.”
Alvarez has never had a problem making the best of the tools at his disposal. He developed his powerful forearms and his “Troll” nickname lifting concrete bags at his father’s construction company in Venezuela.
He didn’t need makeshift workout equipment during the lockdown to remain in shape. He focused instead on improving the mental part of the game.
He spent many hours in Zoom meetings with Mets instructors and coaches. He learned to lean on his trusty laptop, watching countless videos of veteran catchers he admired.
He studied video of two-time all-star J.T. Realmuto of the Phillies, six-time all-star Salvador Perez of the Royals and Christian Vazquez of the Red Sox.
“The one I’d see the most was Realmuto, because he’s one of the best catchers in terms of framing and how to call pitches,” Alvarez said.
Considering Realmuto just signed a five-year, $115 million deal with the Phillies, Alvarez clearly studied a man who has made himself a valued commodity in the majors.
Alvarez spent most of his free time watching videos on his laptop to learn how the best catchers and hitters approach their game.
With that new perspective, he hopes to be better than the last time he played in 2019.
“My defense will be better,” Alvarez said, “and my bat will be a little bit better because I feel strong. I feel like I’ve learned the game more.
“I’ve seen a lot of videos. I see how they work horizontally and vertically. All of the things on computers have helped me improve my game.”
He also expects to be better physically. He estimates that he’s added 10 pounds of muscle.
“I think my bat is going through the zone much quicker,” he said. “I think I can do more damage slugging the ball this year. I think this year I can hit more home runs and have more resistance through the zone. I think it’s going to be a very good year for me.”
He was finally able to return home to Venezuela in December. He remained there for 25 days before returning to Miami to prepare for this season. The pandemic made him appreciate his parents more than ever. He also gained more appreciation for baseball.
“I think that right now for me I learned to miss baseball,” he said. “. . . When I start playing again I wouldn’t want to stop playing until I cannot anymore.”