Alex Avila exited the trainer's room and was walking down the hall back towards his locker when, suddenly, he was struck in the back of the head by a wadded up piece of paper. He quickly turned around, obviously perturbed by what had just happened, and surveyed the people lined up against the wall. Now flexing a little bit, he was beginning to engage himself in a game of ‘Whodunit' as he carefully studied each and every face, looking for a clue into who had just accosted him with the paper ball. As his eye's shifted up and down the line he caught a glimpse out of the corner of his eye.
Immediately disengaged by the emerging face with a 100-watt smile adorning it, he shouted out: "Do you know how many people I've…" but his voice trailed off before he could finish his thought as he became overcome with laughter.
That's Alfredo Figaro: paper hurler, clubhouse clown, and human flamethrower.
He's listed at 6'0, 175 pounds, but as he stands in his sandals in the clubhouse after the game it's pretty clear that those numbers are a little generous. On sight Figaro is not an intimidating figure. Nothing about him is imposing. He's shorter than most prefer their pitchers to be and his easy going nature isn't exactly what you would expect after watching his demeanor on the mound. He smiles easily and is quick to joke about himself, but don't let that fool you. As soon as you put a ball in his hand and place him on a pitcher's mound he my-as-well be 7 feet tall and 350 pounds.
He has an arsenal of stuff that has been baffling Eastern League hitters in the early going this season. His 96-mph fastball is so nasty and hard for hitters to catch up with it wouldn't get caught speeding in a school zone. He has a curveball that appears to fall off the table as it enters the strike zone. His slider has been making knees buckle all throughout April, and he has a change-up that is quickly becoming a reliable pitch to work off of.
"I work on my slider every game; it's been my best pitch so far. My fastball hasn't been there all the way yet, my control on it sometimes isn't so good. It's coming though," Figaro said.
It wasn't always like this for Figaro. Just a year ago he was a prospect with a ton of unrealized potential, albeit one that had enough promise to earn a spot on the Tigers' 40-man roster.
Figaro, 24, had a solid season with West Michigan last year posting a 12-2 record with a 2.05 ERA and 96 strikeouts against just 30 walks in 123 innings, but struggled in Lakeland where he went 0-5 with a 4.91 ERA. Still, despite the promise shown with the Caps, he hadn't created many disciples out of those that had seen him pitch.
Entering the season the standard scouting report on Figaro read something like this: struggles to throw strikes at times, curveball tends to get away from him- but shows promise, below average change-up, lacks dominating secondary pitch, future likely in the bullpen.
Maybe it was the extra year of seasoning, or maybe the talent was there all along and he just failed to put it all together before, but it sure seems like Figaro got his hands on that scouting report and made it his offseason mission to check each one of those faults off the list. Because through his first three starts with the SeaWolves he has been, arguably, the most dominating pitcher in the Eastern League.
"I think all of his pitches are improving, he throws that curve and slider on 3-1, 3-2, counts and catches guys looking with it, so that becomes a real big weapon for you when you can throw strikes with it in that count," manager Tom Brookens said.
So far this season he leads the league the league in WHIP (0.70), ranks fifth among starters who have made at least three starts in ERA (0.96), and comes in at second in strikeouts with 17. More importantly, he has only walked five guys in 18 2/3 innings. Simply put: he has been completely dominating the opposition and in each start he has appeared to improve as he becomes more comfortable.
In his debut he threw 5 2/3 scoreless innings, walked one and struck out four. In his second start he pitched seven innings of no-hit ball, walked three, struck out five, and walked away with the Eastern League Pitcher of the Week award for his performance. In his third start he gave up two solo home runs but struck out eight hitters - three of which were caught looking - and walked only one.
"I was like ‘wow' when I got the award. I worked hard for that, but now I have to throw my game every week so I can win the award every week now," Figaro jokingly said after Thursday's game.
With his early success Figaro is quickly converting those within the organization into believers. Once viewed as someone who lacked the ability to start games, the philosophy on him is changing.
"To me the jury is still out, usually guys of shorter stature that's the easy route [coming out of the bullpen]. They say, ‘oh, ok, he's too tall to be in the bullpen, he's too short to be a starter, ok let's put him in the bullpen.' He has four good pitches and, I personally believe, enough stamina to start," roving pitching instructor Jon Matlack explained.
There are still times when Figaro becomes too animated on the mound and begins to overthrow, which was one of the knocks on him in the past, but in the early going he has been able to identify these moments and make the necessary in game adjustments before spiraling out of control.
"I have not seen him pitch a lot because he has been with other teams, but he shows a good poise about himself. I've seen a few times where I can tell he's telling himself to calm down and slow down and he seems to be able to control that on his own. He does a good job with it," Brookens said after Thursday's start.
"I'll tell him to be relaxed because he gets the adrenaline pumping and it makes him too aggressive. Sometimes I need to remind him to stay concentrated on what he's doing, but he's doing a good job of that himself now," Max Leon added.
The other knock on Figaro was that he may not have the stamina to last the necessary six or seven innings needed when starting, but in the early going he has proved that he can pitch deep into games. With his pitch count increased from 75 to 90 after his first start, Figaro has been working later into games and is still throwing as hard as 93-mph in the seventh inning.
"I feel good when I come out of the games, I'm not tired or anything, my arm feels good. I feel like I could [go] 17 innings out there but I hit the pitch count and I have to come out of the game," Figaro said. "I'd stay in if they'd let me."
His fastest route to the major leagues would likely be through the bullpen where the Tigers could use the added depth. Figaro would be more than willing to embrace any role, but his heart is at the beginning of games.
"I'm a starting pitcher. I pitched relief before, it's ok. I like to start though," Figaro said. "Anything I can do to help the team is fine with me."
If he keeps pitching like this there might even be a decision to make. He's making it for them.