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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 it gets called a strike. 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 fly out.  

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 records 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 fly out.

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 off-speed 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 he 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: Alvarez hits the first pitch he sees (a breaking ball) 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 that 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 toward 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 strikes 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 ground out.

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 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):




4S Fastball Whiff Rate



Slider Whiff Rate



Changeup Whiff Rate



Curveball Whiff Rate



Overall Contact Rate



Strikeout Rate



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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Very cool breakdown. Thanks for the article.
ditto Softy's comments. Can you do this for Chris Davis?Travis Snider--when (if?) he gets back to Toronto.
I'd rather not commit at this point, but I'll see if I can't get to Davis at some point. My guess is that we'll see some of the same talking points pop up.
I'd pay money for one of these on Adam Dunn.
How many people can have decent careers with that low a contact rate? That's about where Snider is as well. I'm sure the Adam Dunn/Mark Reynolds types lend hope to this sort of hitter, but I think they are the exceptions. I completely fail to see how guys like this are ever deemed top prospects.
You're right on Snider--he's at 72 percent for his career.
Adam Dunn never had massive contact problems at the minor league level.
Lots of them. But they are all pitchers.
Good article. It seems to be all about the recognition - he takes good pitches and swings at bad ones. For a guy who you think goes up with a "see fastball, swing" plan, he takes way too many fastballs. Maybe he just doesn't recognize them.
I'm not sure I'd call it a good approach. He's swinging at the "pitcher's pitch" and taking strikes. He only seems to have success making contact when he swings early in the count or gets something inside. It's almost like he's being coached by one person to be more passive and by someone else to be more aggressive and can't find the balance.

On the other hand, if you don't know what to do with a high pitch, a low pitch and an outside pitch, you're going to have problems even if you do swing.

To be clear I'm not saying that he always takes a good approach. You are correct that he seems to be split between coming to the dish aggressive or passive. It's almost like he makes up his mind before the pitch as to whether he's going to swing or not.
That's a sign of being over matched at a particular level.

It's as if he needs to cheat to hit the fastball, such that when he guesses fastball, he commits to swing before he has time to recognize the pitch. If everything goes right (he guesses fastball, gets fastball, and it ends up in a location he can handle), it goes 400 ft. If it's anything else, he whiffs or makes weak contact. If he doesn't guess fastball, he goes into take mode, which explains all the pitches he takes. It also explains why he is so useless after 2 strikes.