COMMENTARY | While Andrew McCutchen's speed, power, and electrifying dreadlocks have given the Pittsburgh Pirates their first superstar since Barry Bonds (and no, I'm sorry, but Brian Giles and Freddy Sanchez don't count), it's going to be up to Pedro Alvarez's bat if the 2013, and very likely, 2014 teams will be successful as the club waits on Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon.
But with the first two weeks of the season in the books and Alvarez struggling mightily, what are the chances of Alvarez finally making good on all his promise?
It's not hard to see why there's so much hope in Alvarez. He was an extremely dominant and advanced hitter with Vanderbilt, and his MLB.com scouting report when he entered the 2008 draft said: "About as safe a bet as there is, Alvarez is a polished and poised hitter and should hit for average in the big leagues."
Which, sure, plenty of prospects don't pan out at all, but are we sure that we're still talking about the same player?
The left-handed Alvarez, thick, robust and who wouldn't look out of place as a lumberjack on a bottle of Grade A Pure Vermont Maple Syrup, was seen as the man who could finally take advantage of the Clemente Wall in right field. His swing, when he connects, is fluid and powerful, reducing grown men like Greg Brown to sputtering pure nonsense. Unfortunately, most of the kinetic energy from Alvarez's swing only produces a pleasant misting effect for fans sitting in the first three rows.
Before Thursday night's game against the Braves, Alvarez, ostensibly a power hitter, had yet to record an extra-base hit. And even after homering against Julio Teheran, his numbers this year are anemic: .104/.204/.167, good for an OPS of .371. That's hardly acceptable for a major-league pitcher, much less the man expected to provide the left-handed punch in the Pirates' order. Though perhaps that should give Pirates fans some hope -- unless Alvarez is actually the victim of some kind of Face Off body switch, chances are good that a mere reversal of luck due can give a boost to his numbers.
Which, for Alvarez, is to be expected. In his rookie season of 2010, Alvarez hit 16 HR with a .788 OPS in 286 plate appearances, looking very much like the No. 2 overall pick he was. The next year, his numbers dropped to .191 /.272/.289 with his power drying up and his strikeout rate spiking. And, last year, in a season that looked like a cardiogram, Alvarez hit .122/.143/.341 with 3 HR and a horrifying 17/1 K/BB rate through 13 games. He then got hot, hitting .367 with 6 HR in 14 games before once again going cold, hitting 112 with 3 HR over the next 33 games. The entire season repeated this way, Alvarez somehow finishing with a respectable .784 OPS and 30 HR.
Point is, the guy's streaky.
This begs the question: Can the Pirates win with a player like that? Sure, at the end of the year, Alvarez was, along with Andrew McCutchen, the only Bucco with more than 30 HR since Jason Bay hit 35 in 2006. But did his massive, team-carrying hot streaks outweigh the parts of the year when the club was better off with James McDonald's bat in the lineup?
A few studies have noticed a correlation between a team consistently scoring runs and a higher winning percentage, which seems to bode ill for carrying a player like Alvarez. It's then not surprising that the Pirates had the fifth-most volatile offense in the league last year as judged by VOL, a stat calculated by Bill Petti that divides daily wOBA (a statistic meant to measure a player's overall offensive contributions) by yearly wOBA, coming in behind only the Brewers, Astros, Marlins, and Padres. That's not exactly company you want to keep and is perhaps a partial explanation for the Pirates' horrible collapse at the end of last season.
At 26, Alvarez is still young enough that he could find unrealized potential, smoothing out the peaks and valleys in the process. But as a first-round draft pick out of college and with nearly 1,300 plate appearances, he's expected to be a little more refined than a player whose early-season struggles make us legitimately question whether baseball is the career for him. The biggest problem in Alvarez's game is his penchant for missing the baseball, something he's upped this year. Alvarez is currently offering at 35.9 percent of pitches out of the strike zone, and making contact less often than anyone not named Colby Rasmus. For his career, Alvarez has struck out in 30.8 percent of his plate appearances.
Sadly, since 1920, only 7 players have had higher strikeout percentages through their age-26 seasons than Alvarez, and most don't have happy endings, these players never unlocking the secret of how to lay off the breaking ball:
7. Chris Davis - 31%
6. Bo Jackson - 32.8%
5. Rob Deer - 33.5%
4. Mark Reynolds - 33.6%
3. Dave Nicholson - 34.6%
2. Melvin Nieves - 34.7%
1. Russell Branyan - 35.8%
Davis and Reynolds, off to hot starts this season, are often at the mercy of cold streaks like Alvarez's because of their tendency to strike out. Davis, in a comeback year last season, hitting 33 HR after being reduced to a part-time player in 2010 and '11, still posted an OPS of .659, .701, and .749 between June and August, while Reynolds hit only .207/.307/.341 with 2 HR in July of last year.
The rest of the players on this list, Bo Jackson's injury-shortened career excluded, saw their prodigious power mitigated by their inability to make consistent contact with the ball. Rob Deer, despite annual 20 home-run seasons, saw his .220 batting average drag down his value; Dave Nicholson received only 1,661 PA before he had to call it a career; and when was the last time you heard people talk glowingly about Melvin Nieves? Branyan, a top prospect when coming up with the Indians, is actually an interesting comparison for Alvarez. Not only did they both enter the league as left-handed hitting third basemen eventually ticketed for first, but Branyan also soon found himself in a platoon situation because of his inability to hit left-handers, the issue of most importance for Alvarez's development.
This season, Alvarez is 0-for-16 against lefties, drawing one walk and striking out nine times. For his career, he's a .202/.274/.339 hitter, nearly matching Branyan's line (206/.287/.441) except missing the crucial element of power. And Branyan, despite that ability to take southpaws deep, was quickly dropped from facing off against same-sided hurlers.
At this point, the best thing Alvarez has going for him is his pedigree. None of the batters listed were drafted above the fourth round, and Alvarez's blistering hot streaks prove that there lies the ability to hit major-league pitching, no matter how dormant that currently lies.
Unfortunately, unless Alvarez can learn to hit southpaws, it will be difficult justifying his role as a major-league starter. While his power is intriguing, an extremely streaky hitter who needs to sit half the time is a luxury the Pirates can ill afford as he moves into his arbitration years. But with the Pirates' system lacking any corner infield prospects to threaten Pedro, they'll live and die with the temperature of his bat. Sadly, history seems set against them.
Michael Clair is a Pirates follower who thinks losing builds character. He writes the news and humor blog Old Time Family Baseball and contributes to The Platoon Advantage.
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