Before the 2012 season started, Pedro Alvarez was pretty universally regarded as one of the keys to the Pirate offense in 2012. Pirate fans were mostly worried sick about the guy, whether they admitted it to themselves or not, because he had a terrible 2011 and an awful spring training and when Alvarez is lost at the plate he tends to look so far gone that you can’t help but wonder if he’ll ever find his way back.
After a slow start to the season, Alvarez hits the All-Star break with a .231/.307/.478 line. He’s got 16 homers and 15 doubles in his 59 hits, his walk rate has edged up to 9.8%, and his strikeout rate sits just above the 30% threshold that we talk about so much (30.3%). Among the 16 qualified third basemen in the Majors this year, his 108 wRC+ is ninth and his 2.0 fWAR is tied for eighth. In simpler terms, Alvarez has been pretty much average amongst third basemen that are good enough to start every day, which means that he’s been a little bit above average overall, as third basemen go. His identifying characteristic, of course, is his power. His .247 ISO is the best amonst third baseman by quite a bit (Miguel Cabrera is second a .233, Mike Moustakas is third at .221, David Wright and Aramis Ramirez are the only two others above .200) and as mentioned, more than half of his hits this year are doubles or home runs. When Pedro Alvarez hits the ball, Pedro Alvarez hits the ball hard.
Just these numbers by themselves in a vacuum are encouraging from Alvarez. Last year was brutal and this year’s spring training was worrisome and his first 24 plate appearances this year (12 strikeouts, no walks, one hit/homer) were flat-out terrifying. It seems strange now that we freaked out over such a relatively small slump, but at the time the evidence against Alvarez was mounting. Now at the break, Alvarez is pretty much what he was at the end of his rookie season; a young hitter with incredible brute strength whose strikeout problem keeps him from being more than a pretty good player. This is fine as third basemen go, even if it’s a bit short of what we all hoped to see from Alvarez.
It’s tempting to look at Alvarez’s season and say things like, “Well, since he hit his second home run, he’s hitting .251/.331/.511 and his strikeout rate is around 28% and …” but the reality is that you can’t throw out any piece of data with Alvarez; he’s prone to bad slumps. Throwing one out just because it came at the start of the season is cherry-picking. Not even a month ago, he was closing up a five-week stretch where he hit .148/.229/.226 over 34 games. Slumps are as much a part of Alvarez’s game right now as his incredible hot streaks are.
His most recent stretch is a very interesting one to me. If we start the day after his rampage in Cleveland ended, Alvarez is hitting .306/.411/.565 with four homers, four doubles, 10 walks (3 IBB), and 20 strikeouts in 73 plate appearances. He’s obviously being pitched to carefully after he single-handedly destroyed the Indians and he’s not homering at anything like the rate he did during his first tear this year, but he’s being pretty selective at the plate and he’s still driving the ball hard. This is the first stretch like this that I can remember in his career; he’s been a very valuable hitter in this span, but his value isn’t being solely derived from his ability to hit the ball over the fence.
The question for me now is where Pedro goes once this current streak is over. If he goes on another four-homer weekend or five-homer-in-eight-games tear, his season line will leap from being a pretty average third baseman to an excellent one. If he bottoms out again, he’ll need another impossibly hot streak to get him back up to average. I will say that I am encouraged by this most recent spell, if only because it suggests that some kind of evolution in Pedro Alvarez as a hitter is taking place beyond the hit a ton of homers/hit a ton of nothing pattern that he showed us during his rookie year and the first part of this year. Encouraged is as far as I’d go for now, though; I want to see more from him to see where we go from here.
All of that being said, given the way that things went for Pedro Alvarez in 2011 and the very earliest parts of 2012, “encouraged” is a very good place to be in with him. Everyone had tons of questions earlier this year as to whether Neal Huntington and Clint Hurdle and Gregg Ritchie were handling him correctly — whether he should be in the Majors, whether he needed a different hitting coach, whether there was any hope at all for him, and so on. He’s making progress. I’m not sure it’s quite enough progress yet, but everything starts somewhere.