Camp opened yesterday, and all but one guy (Anderson Hernandez, with visa problems, reported today) was there. For some, spring training is just an opportunity to get back into the rhythm of baseball, but for others, it's the first step in resolving some questions. The Pirates are generally loaded with the latter. None loom larger this season than the Pedro Alvarez enigma.
Can Alvarez, 25, develop into the middle of the order bat the Pirates need? Last year, he couldn't decide if he wanted to be patient or aggressive at bat, and it led to a disastrous .191/4/19 line and an OPS of 56, with 100 being the league norm. To boot, he was injured for a good chunk of the year, and ended up with a UZR/150 of -2.8 and a WAR of -0.8.
We remember the template too well - watch the first pitch go by on the outside corner for strike one, swing over an off speed pitch, and try to work out of an 0-2 hole. He was in that count 28% of his at-bats last year, and batted .077 with a 55% K rate. What a difference a year makes.
In 2010, he looked alright in July and August, with a line of .252/.336/.435 with 10 HR and 32 RBI in 190 ABs before breaking out in September, finishing with a 1.6 WAR. His Isolated Power rating (ISO) was an excellent .205, and his fly ball to home runs worked out at a strong 17.6% The Pirates will take that gladly this year. 2011's numbers dropped drastically in the power department, with an .098 ISO and 10.3% HR/FB ratio.
His plate discipline will be crucial. Last year, he had two strike counts in 151 of his 236 (64%) plate appearances, which matches up with his first-strike takes (61%, not an overly high number). He hit .094 in those situations with an OBP of .172 (13 hits, 12 walks). In his strike-or-less appearances, his average was .278. In 2010, he had 2 strikes on him a more reasonable 54% of the time, but still hit just .130 with a .194 OBP.
So it's not a new development, and it's trending the wrong way. For El Toro,
it's a simple enough matter: figure out the strike zone and stay aggressive within
it, especially when down in the count. Easier said than done, especially for a young power hitter.
The problem isn't that he swings at more pitches off the plate than most guys; his career average matches the MLB standards. It's that he misses them at a much greater rate - he swings through 44% of them, while the league average is about 35%, indicative of some real fishing at the dish. His impatience with two strikes really shows, both in that swing-and-miss rate and his career 31% K rate.
His rebound is a key to the Pirate batting order. If Pedro can be plugged into the four-five spot, it's easier for Hurdle to cover the black hole at 7-8-9. Conceding an inning is hard enough on a lineup; conceding the final four batters is murder.
It got so bad last year that in the off season, the Rockies were said to be trawling the trade waters for Pedro, hoping the FO would cut ties and sell him low. Not much chance of that after the money and effort they've invested in him, not to mention his potential upside on a team that needs a guy whose fly balls the fences can't hold.
He's signed for $700K this year and has two club options for the same amount in 2013-14 (although he can void an option when he becomes arbitration eligible), so he's under team control for awhile yet. It's too soon to give up on him - remember Jose Bautista? - but after being caught without a Plan B at the hot corner last year, the FO brought in Casey McGehee this season. Their patience with Alvarez is not infinite, as they showed last year.
The $6M question this camp is will Pedro Alvarez become the next Jose Bautista, the next Ian Stewart, or something in between? The timeline for the Pirates' return to respectability depends on the answer.