Originally posted on Baseball Prospectus  |  Last updated 4/16/12

Later tonight, the Pirates will take on the Diamondbacks. Pittsburgh is unlikely to start Pedro Alvarez because Joe Saunders is scheduled to take the mound for Arizona. Alvarez as a platoon player isn’t what the Pirates envisioned for him back on Draft Day 2008, but the reality is more grim. There are slow starts, and then there are 1-for-19 with 12 strikeout starts. Why is Alvarez floundering? I went back and reviewed his at-bats while taking some notes.

April 5

First at-bat, facing Roy Halladay: Alvarez takes two breaking pitches outside of the zone before fouling off a 2-0 fastball inside. He takes a fastball away that looks to be outside, but gets called a strike anyhow. After taking another pitch for a ball then fouling a breaker off, Alvarez hits a ball solidly to center field, though the play itself is routine for the center fielder. Result: Seven-pitch flyout.  

Second at-bat, facing Halladay: Halladay feeds Alvarez a fastball diet early on, tossing him four side (that Alvarez watches for a ball, fouls off, fouls off, and takes for a ball in order) before going to a slow low. Alvarez takes an ugly swing and record his first strikeout of the season. Result: Five-pitch strikeout swinging.

Third at-bat, facing Halladay: Alvarez gets ahead after taking a breaking ball low and away, and then fouls off a cutter. Halladay gives him a fastball, but Alvarez lifts it to center for a harmless out. Result: Three-pitch flyout.

April 8

First at-bat, facing Vance Worley: The term full-take mode enters the mind as Alvarez takes four straight pitches. Despite getting ahead 2-0, Alvarez goes down swinging on a high slider. Result: Five-pitch strikeout swinging.

Second at-bat, facing Worley: Again Alvarez takes early in the count, getting ahead 2-0. Unlike last time, Alvarez makes this advantage count. After fouling off a fastball low-and-away, he gets an offspeed pitch inside and pulls it into the PNC Park concourse area beyond the right field stands. Hit Tracker Online says the ball went 403 feet. Result: Four-pitch home run.

Third at-bat, facing Michael Stutes: Alvarez is seemingly a fastball hunter and he gets one here, but fouls it off. He falls behind and swings through two breaking pitches en route to a strikeout, though he does reach base due to a dropped third strike that the Phillies fail to convert into an out. Result: Four-pitch strikeout swinging.

April 11

First at-bat, facing Chad Billingsley: On the first pitch Alvarez sees (a breaking ball) he hits it to the warning track in right field. Result: One-pitch flyout.

Second at-bat, facing Billingsley: Alvarez takes a fastball for a strike, swings at a change in the dirt, and takes another fastball. The high fastball is a temptress and Alvarez can’t refuse on 1-2. Unfortunately, he fails to make contact and goes down swinging. Result: Four-pitch strikeout swinging.

Third at-bat, facing Matt Guerrier: Guerrier starts Alvarez with a breaking pitch before throwing a changeup away. Alvarez connects, sending a sharp line towards second base, but Mark Ellis is there for the out. Result: Two-pitch lineout.

April 12

First at-bat, facing Chris Capuano: Facing his first left-handed pitcher of the season, Alvarez celebrates the occasion by seeing five pitches without swinging. Capuano takes advantage and strikes him out. Result: Five-pitch strikeout looking.

Second at-bat, facing Capuano: Alvarez’s second try at Capuano doesn’t go much better. Capuano places his curveball for a strike and gets Alvarez to whiff at a changeup away. With an 0-2 count, Alvarez fouls off a fastball before going after his favorite treat—the changeup in the dirt—and missing. Result: Four-pitch strikeout swinging.

Third at-bat, facing Mike MacDougal: The only pitch here is a fastball that Alvarez hits to the second baseman.  Result: One-pitch groundout.

Fourth at-bat, facing Javy Guerra: Guerra tosses a curveball and fastball for a strike before changing eye levels with a fastball high. On a 1-2 count, Alvarez is thinking anything but a fastball, yet that’s what Guerra throws low-and-away for strike three. Result: Four-pitch strikeout looking.

April 13

First at-bat, facing Matt Cain: Right away you can see that this is a bad matchup for Alvarez as he swings through a changeup low. Cain comes back with a pair of fastballs out of the zone before tossing back-to-back changeups, both of which Alvarez swings through. Keep that pattern in mind. Result: Five-pitch strikeout swinging.

Second at-bat, facing Matt Cain: Cain tosses a fastball away before going back to his bread-and-butter against Alvarez: the changeup low. Alvarez swings and misses, takes a fastball away for a strike, then swings through the changeup again. Result: Four-pitch strikeout swinging.

Third at-bat, facing Matt Cain: Clap for Alvarez, who finally makes contact with Cain’s changeup, albeit by fouling it off. After taking fastballs inside (for a ball) and outside (for a strike), he decides to lay off Cain’s changeup away. One problem, though, as it’s called a strike. Result: Four-pitch strikeout looking.

April 15

First at-bat, facing Ryan Vogelsong: Alvarez fouls off what looks to be a changeup to begin the at-bat, then takes another pitch to fall behind 0-2. He takes a low change, but the pitch seems to change Alvarez’s eye-level, since he swings through a high fastball to end the at-bat. Result: Four-pitch strikeout swinging.

Second at-bat, facing Vogelsong: After taking a curve and a fastball for a strike, Alvarez holds off a breaker in the dirt, fouls off a fastball, and takes a fastball low-and-away only to hit a grounder to second base. Result: Six-pitch groundout.

Third at-bat, facing Vogelsong: Alvarez’s most recent at-bat. He fouls off a breaking ball and a changeup to start the at-bat. Vogelsong goes back to the high-fastball to get Alvarez to swing-through for the second time on the afternoon. Result: Three-pitch strikeout swinging.

After watching those at-bats, I wondered if I would think of Alvarez differently had I not known about his draft and prospect status. Without watching Alvarez’s defensive innings and without seeing him on the basepaths (beyond jogging), the only thing I could consider is his offensive game. While the power I saw was genuine and was fantastic, the seeming inability to recognize and/or hit a pitch with a wrinkle is discerning.

Coming out of Vanderbilt, Alvarez was lauded by Kevin Goldstein for having plus-plus power, excellent bat control, and a professional approach at the plate. Goldstein also noted that Alvarez had the tendency to whiff and press for power rather than allow his strength to do the work for him. That bat control is there at times and so is the approach, despite a questionable approach to secondary offerings. Alvarez can get ahead in the count and seemed to have a decent idea at what was on and off the plate. His problem, again, came down to identifying the pitches that were above the zone (fastballs, at least), and the balls below the zone (curves, sliders, and changeups).

Alvarez’s combination of power and whiff-ability reminded me of another left-handed hitter. The Athletics recently designated Brandon Allen for assignment, and while Alvarez’s situation isn’t as dire, the two share some strengths and weaknesses. Even their whiff rates since 2010 are similar (Note: All classifications are MLBAM’s and not adjusted):

Split

Alvarez

Allen

4S Fastball Whiff Rate

10.9%

9.8%

Slider Whiff Rate

19.3%

21.2%

Changeup Whiff Rate

21.8%

23.3%

Curveball Whiff Rate

12.4%

11.6%

Overall Contact Rate

69%

67%

Strikeout Rate

31.6%

36.1%

The differences between those two seem to revolve around Alvarez’s good 2010 season and his markedly better pedigree. Let’s hope—not necessarily for the sake of the Pirates or Alvarez, but for the sake of baseball—that he can get his bumps flattened out. If only because seeing baseballs travel a long way into the right field stands is about as fun as the game gets. 

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