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Fixing Pedro

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Pedro Alvarez was supposed to anchor the Pirates’ power-starved lineup, belting homers and drawing walks by the bushel. Instead, the $6 million bonus baby, selected second overall out of Vanderbilt in the 2008 draft, hopes to avoid Triple-A Indianapolis next spring after a 2011 season in which he slugged .289 and suffered a quadriceps injury.

PSR’s David Golebiewski picked the brains of baseball experts for a solution to Alvarez’s offensive woes and predictions about the former top prospect’s future.

Let ‘Em Play
Alvarez needs everyday at-bats, not sporadic starts, pinch-hit appearances and punitive demotions like in 2011. With a career .862 on-base-plus slugging percentage (OPS) at Indy and big league success as a rookie in 2010 (16 homers and a .788 OPS after a mid-June call-up), Alvarez would be wasting his time in the minors.

“What does he have left to prove at Triple-A?” asks Baseball America Editor Jim Callis, who considered Alvarez the best player in the ’08 draft. “I think they gave him that wake-up call when they sent him to Triple-A last year.”

Knowing he could be benched after a bad night might have exacerbated Alvarez’s problems, says Fangraphs.com analyst Eric Seidman. And realistically, Pittsburgh is a long shot to contend in 2012. It’s time for the Pirates to find out what they have in Alvarez.

“Giving him 500 plate appearances might be exactly what he needs to figure out what’s wrong,” Seidman says. “The Phillies would have him on a short leash because they’re a winning team right now. The Pirates? What’s the difference between winning 74 games and 76 games, if winning 74 games means Alvarez gets proper development?”

Cut the Ks, Take to the Air
Alvarez whiffs – a lot. He has fanned in 31 percent of his plate appearances, compared to the 19 percent MLB average. Alvarez also hits too many grounders for a would-be slugger, chopping the ball into the turf 50 percent of the time he puts the ball in play (44 percent average). Better plate discipline would help greatly.

“I think he’s been overly aggressive, and I never had that impression of him in college,” Callis says. “He seemed like a very polished hitter.”

Alvarez has chased 31 percent of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone, above the 30 percent average, according to Fangraphs.

That hacking stems from problems recognizing off-speed pitches, says ESPN analyst Keith Law. Alvarez drills fastballs, but he flails when pitchers take something off. Fangraphs shows that per 100 fastballs seen, Alvarez has been +0.4 runs better than an average batter. But he has scuffled versus sliders (-1.2 runs), curveballs (-1.2) and changeups (-1.7).

photo by Chuck LeClaire“I’d like to see what happens if he narrows his stance more,” Law says.

‘Trust, Foundation, Simple Thought’ at the Plate
As the Pirates’ current batting coach and minor league hitting coordinator from 2006-2010, Gregg Ritchie has seen Alvarez at his best – and worst. To get back to his slugging ways, Alvarez needs to trust his ability, stay square at the plate and adjust to game situations.

“What we talk to Petey about is, ‘out over the plate, big part of the field,’” Ritchie says. “That’s the foundation allowing you to hit the ball where it’s pitched.”

Hitting the ball where it’s pitched means not trying to reach the Allegheny on a sinker that’s tailing away.

“If your solo mental thought is to yank a ball down the right field line, what do you think is going to come out of your body?” Ritchie asks. “If your thought process doesn’t match what you need to accomplish, you’re going to be vulnerable.”

Alvarez added a Prince Fielder-like toe tap to his swing last September in an effort to time his cut and cover the plate. With better timing and an up-the-middle approach, Ritchie says Alvarez can still swing, as Clint Hurdle says, with “bad intentions.”

“My barrel will still be on the baseball,” Ritchie says. “If a guy pulls the string, you drive that ball, maybe to the pull side but you keep it fair. You drive fastballs all over the field, and you’re able to stay on off-speed stuff.”

The Future
Noting that big-time college hitting prospects rarely bust, Callis thinks Alvarez, 25 in February, can still be a star. He cites Kansas City’s Alex Gordon, the second pick in the 2005 draft who battled injuries and hit poorly before breaking out with an .879 OPS in 2011.

“The ability is still there,” Callis says. “The jury is out on whether he’s a guy who hits for average and power like in college, or he’s more of a slugger than an all-around hitter. But I have to believe Pedro is at least a solid regular.”

Law and Seidman aren’t as sanguine, though they recognize Pedro’s potential.  

“He’s a complementary hitter, third or fourth-best guy in a good lineup unless he makes some major changes in his stance or approach,” Law says. “He’s young enough that I can’t rule either of those things out, though.”

While Callis sees parallels to Gordon, Seidman points to the harrowing tale of Brandon Wood, a former top-10 prospect in the Angels’ system who has whiffed seven times more than he has walked and was booted off the Pirates’ 40-man roster. Alvarez deserves a shot to prove otherwise in 2012, however.

photo by Chuck LeClaire“Some players develop slower than others, and development has always plagued the Pirates,” Seidman says. “Inconsistent playing time won’t help anything, especially if he’s a cornerstone of the franchise.”

“Hitting is a passion for Petey,” Ritchie says. “He can hit, and he knows it. It’s just a matter of trust and mentality.”

Neil Walker’s contract expires after the 2016 season. The Pirates second baseman is due for a big raise in arbitration this offseason—likely to $10 million—and signing him to a long-term extension will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $12-$15 million annually.
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