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El Toro’s Tepid Hitting

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A 6-3, 235-pound player possessing a vicious left-handed cut capable of making opposing pitchers feel as if they’ve just been gored, Pedro Alvarez has garnered the nickname “El Toro,” or The Bull.

Alvarez’s premium power and willingness to work the count made him the second overall pick in the 2008 MLB draft, and the Vanderbilt product mashed his way to Pittsburgh last June after he hit .284, got on base at a .373 clip, and slugged .535 in the minor leagues. Which infield corner he would man long-term – third base or first – was subject to debate. But his bat was rarely questioned. Alvarez was expected to give pitchers the horns.

A miserable start to the 2011 season, however, has caused some Pirates fans to become bearish toward The Bull as he struggles to keep his average above the Mendoza Line. Since the Bucs called him up last year, Alvarez has batted .245 with a .314 on-base percentage and a .416 slugging percentage in a little more than 500 plate appearances. For comparison, major league batters (excluding pitchers) have collectively hit .259 with a .327 OBP and a .406 slugging percentage since last June. Suffice it to say, the Pirates didn’t give Alvarez a $6 million signing bonus to be a below-average big league batter.

At 24 years old, Alvarez is still developing and is several years away from reaching his peak. But in order to earn that “El Toro” nickname and inflict damage in the middle of Pittsburgh’s lineup, he’s going to have to make better contact, keep the ball off the grass and work the count in his favor more often.

In the majors, Alvarez has made contact with just 70.1 percent of the pitches that he has swung at, according to Fangraphs.com. The MLB average is about 81 percent. As a result, he has struck out in 34.3 percent of his at-bats.

K’s don’t preclude a hitter from being very successful – many power hitters punch out often, but compensate with extra-base lightning and walks. But Alvarez’s K rate is extreme, blowing away the 20.2 percent MLB average for non-pitcher hitters. Such a high whiff rate means that he’ll struggle to hit much more than .250, putting a lot of pressure on him to post elite power numbers and draw walks by the bunch.

So far, Pedro’s power output has been rather modest. His Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average) is .172. Non-pitchers have a .149 ISO since last June. One of the biggest reasons for Alvarez’s merely good pop is an elevated ground ball rate. He has hit a grounder 47 percent of the time in the majors, above the 44 percent average.

Power hitting and ground balls mix together about as well as peanut butter and toothpaste. It’s a wretched combination. Good things happen with Alvarez lofts the ball, as evidenced by a career .930 slugging percentage on fly balls that makes a mockery of the big league average, which sits between .550 and .575. He just needs to take to the air more often.

Alvarez also hasn’t been the highly patient hitter he was billed as, either. It’s not like he’s hacking at everything from his eyes to his ankles, but Alvarez’s walk rate (9.1 percent) is just slightly above the 8.7 percent average for non-pitchers.

He’s swinging at 29.3 percent of pitches thrown out of the strike zone, slightly above the 29 percent average, and he’s keeping the bat on his shoulder against more in-zone pitches than most. Alvarez has swung at 61.8 percent of pitches thrown over the plate, while the average is 64-65 percent. Chasing a decent number of junk pitches and letting strikes go by – those aren’t the hallmarks of a hitter who controls the zone.

It’s fair to say that Pedro Alvarez has been a disappointment to this point in his major league career, and his 2011 work in particular has been cringe-worthy. But, while his bat has barely made a whimper so far, Alvarez retains significant upside. Five-hundred-some odd trips to the plate should not be used to make a definitive judgment about Alvarez’s talents.

He’s going to whiff. A lot. But he has shown the kind of patience and power in the past to be an excellent hitter anyway. ZiPS, a projection system developed by sabermatrician Dan Szymborski, has Alvarez hitting .256/.331/.456 for the rest of the 2011 season. And remember, he’ll play the entire year at 24 years of age. Most players peak in their mid-to-late twenties.

Alvarez is taking his lumps right now. Especially against lefties, against whom he seems to fall behind 0-and-2 before Bucs fans can even get a bite of their Pulled Pork and Pierogi Stackers. But Alvarez is hardly a lost cause. With a few adjustments, El Toro could re-emerge in the ‘Burgh.

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