I don’t know if there’s ever been a Pittsburgh Pirate more hyped than Pedro Alvarez and I don’t know if there ever will be. He came to the Pirates under a perfect storm of conditions. He was Neal Huntington’s first draft pick, he represented the first time that the Pirates had ever drafted the best player regardless of the price tag, the first time they decided to deal with Scott Boras rather than shooting for an easier path. I spent the whole summer watching this video, counting down the days until August 15th, when we’d know for sure that Alvarez would be a Pirate.
That night, there was a discussion thread on this site as lively as any thread in WHYGAVS’s seven year history. We all celebrated at 12:15 or 12:30 or whenever the news came across that Alvarez had officially signed. Then, we all freaked out a few weeks later when Alvarez and Boras decided to challenge the contract and exhaled when the situation got cleared up. Everyone obsessed over his minor league numbers in 2009, worrying when he started out slowly with Lynchburg and getting excited as he tore up the Eastern League in Altoona. I don’t mean to imply that me (or Pirate fans in general) aren’t excited about guys like Jameson Taillon or Gerrit Cole, just that the hype surrounding them isn’t quite the same as it was when Pedro Alvarez was a minor leaguer. Pedro was the first guy that Pirate fans had to be really excited about out of the gate in years.
The point is, every Pirate fan (me, you, that guy that’s been sitting next to you in your season ticket seats for three years and he knows your name but you don’t know his and now it’s way to late to ask him) had invested a lot in Pedro Alvarez before he ever he stepped onto the field at PNC Park. I won’t pretend to speak for every other Pirate fan here, but there’s no Pirate that I root for harder than Pedro Alvarez. He’s not necessarily my favorite player, but it’s so plainly apparent to me how badly he wants to succeed and how hard he works at it when he’s struggling and how hard of a time he gets from the fans when things aren’t going right, that I just want to see him do well. That’s before even considering what sort of a game-changer it’d be to have a 35-40 home run Pedro Alvarez in the middle of the lineup to help shoulder the load with Andrew McCutchen once the club’s young pitching prospects make it to Pittsburgh.
So we’re 190 games into Pedro Alvarez’s big league career, and it’s been a roller coaster. He started off his Pirate career in a huge slump, the he got really hot and really cold and really hot again before his rookie season ended. He spend almost all of last year in an impenentrable funk that got him demoted after a rehab assignment. That combined with his terrible spring training and awful start to 2012 had a lot of people (myself certainly included) wondering if he’d ever be a useful Major League hitter again. And as soon as we all started to wonder that, he set off on a tear as good as anything he did in his rookie year. You probably don’t need me to recite the stats, but since his second homer on April 18th, he’s hitting .370/.420/.848 with 17 hits, ten of which have gone for extra bases (four doubles, six homers). His strikeout rate in those games is 24%, which is perfectly acceptable.
The result of Alvarez’s hot streak is that there’s been a lot of crowing from the corner of the fan base that wanted to give him more time after his cold start. I was pretty alarmed to see how quickly the comments turned in this post from Bucs Dugout from about a week ago saying that Alvarez still has things to prove.
I understand everyone’s desire to ride this hot streak out for all it’s worth because it’s been awesome to watch. This Pedro Alvarez is the guy the Pirates drafted second, the guy they paid $6 million for, the guy they bent over backwards to accomodate when he raised issues about his signing that were almost certainly his agent’s fault. This Pedro Alvarez can turn a game with one big swing, the way he did yesterday. It’s not a coincidence that the Pirates have started crossing the previously impenetrable five-run barrier regularly in the last few days. It’s fun to wonder what this Pedro Alvarez could do with an equally hot Andrew McCutchen. It’s been ages (20 years?) since the Pirates have had two young players that can drive the ball the way McCutchen and Alvarez can when they’re on. It’s a sweeping and broad statement, but a non-bust Pedro Alvarez changes everything for this team over the course of the next couple of years.
That said, I personally am having trouble approaching this hot streak with anything more than cautious optimism. I sort of feel about Alvarez right now the way I felt about the team in July last year; he’s fun to watch but I just need to see more to be able to really get excited. Pedro’s hotter than the surface of the sun right now, but he’s still striking out just about once in every four plate appearances. The reality is that Pedro’s been this hot before (in 14 games between July 3 and July 21, 2010, he hit .352/.426/.796 with seven homers, three doubles, and 16 strikeouts in 61 plate appearance) and that hasn’t prevented him from being frozen out once pitchers figured out how to counter the adjustments he’s made. It’s possible that Gregg Ritchie’s latest adjustment that spurred this hot streak will help him avoid another slump, but we simply have no way of telling from here. The markers in this hot streak just aren’t all that different from the markers in his past hot streak. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he’ll fall into a funk in the way he has in the past, it just means that we don’t know.
It’s honestly good to see Pedro get scorching hot again. This hasn’t happened since September of 2010, and anyone that wondered if it would happen again after a couple of weeks this year certainly wasn’t wrong to do so. My own personal concern, though, is that if he can’t make contact more often, he’ll eventually become Mark Reynolds. When the Pirates drafted Alvarez in 2008, we all hoped he’d be the sort of hitter that Prince Fielder was in his last three years in Milwaukee. Over his first few years in the organization, I mentally downgraded my expectations for him into the Ryan Howard/Carlos Pena territory. That would make him a good player and still well worth the second pick in the draft, if not necessarily a perennial MVP candidate (I know Howard is technically a perennial MVP candidate; it’s just that he’s not nearly as good as the BBWAA makes him out to be). Mark Reynolds, though … the Pirates need more from Pedro Alvarez than Mark Reynolds. They need more consistency, they need him on base more often, they just need more.
I still think that Alvarez is capable of being more than that, I just haven’t seen enough evidence yet that to be confident that he will be. What I’m more interested in now is what Alvarez does when this hot streak ends. Can he still be a potent and useful part of the lineup when he’s not hitting a home run every other game? If this hot streak ends soon, how quickly can he dial up another one? Essentially, I have the same questions now about Alvarez that I did when his rookie season ended, except that he’s almost two years older. I’m happy (and surprised) he’s gotten back to that point so quickly this year after his brutal 2011 and his terrible March-early April in 2012. Both he and the coaching staff deserve credit for that. Still, I think that the biggest questions about him remain unanswered.