Call it poetic justice or karmic repayment, but there's something fitting about Pedro Alvarez having to corral wild throws at first base not even a year after leading third basemen in throwing errors.
Whatever the preferred term, Alvarez's transition across the diamond remains nascent. He suffered a season-ending stress reaction in his foot just five games after the initial move. Yet the Pirates proceeded as if Alvarez had taken ownership of the position, cementing his perch on top of the depth chart during the offseason by trading Ike Davis and non-tendering Gaby Sanchez. Though Pittsburgh later acquired Sean Rodriguez and signed Corey Hart—each of whom has and will see time at the cold corner—the implication came through loud and clear: Alvarez was Plan A.
Alvarez had eight months between regular-season games to heal and improve his technique (albeit not break in his own mitt). Did he use that time wisely, or does he look like a misplaced third baseman? To figure that out, let's review Alvarez's first full week in his first full season at his new position by breaking his game down into components.
Hands and Feet
In the field, no relationship is more important for a first baseman than the interplay between his hands and feet. Evaluating a first baseman's hands entails watching how he catches and scoops the ball, how he makes his transfer on throws or flips, how he applies a tag, whatever; basically, the mitt should feel as if it's a part of his body rather than an awkward accessory. That same gracefulness and awareness of an inanimate object should be present in his footwork. He needs to know how to position himself on the bag to receive throws, when and where to step to maximize his reach and flexibility, how to set his feet to field a ball, how to go to and return from the four hole, and so on. With those two attributes in tow, mastering first base is a cinch.
Unfortunately, Alvarez's path to enlightenment is tougher than usual. Moving from third to five base means more than changing sight lines, it means reprogramming how the hands and feet react. Jeff Bagwell, another right-handed third baseman who slid to first, talked to the authors of Tales from First Base about the toughest part of the transition. Here's what he said: "[The footwork,] getting to the bag while the ball is being thrown. At third your glove hand has more plays and at first base it's your back hand. So I had to work a lot harder on my back hand once I got to the big leagues at first base because that's where more of your balls are."
The good news for Alvarez is his hands have made the trip to first base. He didn't clank any throws, or muff any fielding opportunities. His footwork, conversely, had moments where it was clear he was still new to the position. Let's look at a few examples of Alvarez's footwork, good and bad:
Both throws were off-center, dictating Alvarez position himself on the front and back sides of the bag. He had no problem doing so in the top image, where he also took his time before stepping toward right field, thereby creating a better angle from which to make the backhanded snag. That wasn't the case in the bottom image, where Alvarez failed to shimmy to the front side of the bag. The result was a tougher play than necessary, one that a veteran first baseman probably makes in an easier fashion. Alvarez made the catch anyway, so credit him for that much.
Moving on, here's Alvarez digging out a low throw:
Again Alvarez waits before stepping, then leaves himself enough room between his leg and glove to make the backhanded stop without the ball ricocheting off his shin. He got low enough to get a better view of the ball's trajectory, yet kept his back foot on the bag. Not bad. Watch a different version of the same play, albeit at half-speed:
Now let's look at Alvarez securing the tail-end of a double play:
In the middle frame, Marlon Byrd is about a step from the bag when Alvarez snaps his mitt. Truthfully, Byrd is out whether Alvarez stretches or not—the ball is traveling faster than Byrd is, after all—but there are going to be instances in the future where that wouldn't be the case. Alvarez, at least during this look, should be ready when those times come.
Alas, not every play was good or encouraging. This was Alvarez's lone error:
The fault lies in Alvarez's footwork. He misjudged where he was in relation to the ball, shuffling too far to his left and botching an otherwise routine out. Oh well.
Athleticism and Intangibles
While feet and hands go together like the Grease cast, only the game's special players seem to receive credit for their athleticism and intangibles; the rest of the league almost works on a sliding scale of sorts, where it's one or the other. What we're looking for in this section is not only whether Alvarez moves well—be it ranging, diving, or sliding after a ball—but whether he moves smartly—i.e. does he show restraint on balls to his right, have a working internal clock, and so on.
Everything checks out with Alvarez. He doesn't look like a great athlete—rather, he looks like Prince Fielder—but he showed some quickness and body control when needed. Consider this fancy field-and-flip play:
Lind is a sluggish runner and the ball is easily fielded, but Alvarez was the only one with a shot at getting to it and completing the transaction. He executes both aspects, scooping the ball and flipping to an in-stride Jeff Locke (who deserves credit for booking it to the bag) for the easy out.
Here's a tougher play from the same game:
This time Alvarez lays out to his right—see what Bagwell meant about first base being a backhanded position?—gets to his feet and makes an accurate flip to Locke, who beats out Jonathan Lucroy, a better runner than Lind (and seemingly Locke himself).
Here's the most flashy example of Alvarez's athleticism and feel for his new position:
Alvarez covers some ground, slides before he rams into the dugout, and makes an impressive sliding grab to his glove side. It's a pretty good play, and a pretty good reminder that Alvarez isn't anchored to first base due to his lack of athleticism.
This is why Alvarez is at first base. More specifically, Alvarez's throwing accuracy is why. (If you spend as much time at third in professional ball as he did, the odds are you have well-above-average arm strength). He didn't get any real throwing opportunities during the observed period beyond the aforementioned flip plays—no 3-6-3 double plays, no relays, no rundowns, no nothing. But just because you don't see the boogeyman doesn't mean he isn't real. Travis Sawchik, of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, noted Alvarez had throwing issues in the spring:
Second game in a row Alvarez has one-hopped a throw to second in trying to cut down lead runner. This time Mercer couldn't pick it
— Travis Sawchik (@Sawchik_Trib) April 4, 2015
Assuming Alvarez's throwing woes remain, opposing teams are going to have some interesting philosophical debates. For instance: Under what circumstances do you send a runner from third when Alvarez fields the ball? Now what if that runner is Billy Hamilton? (Ryan Zimmerman is likely to inspire the same conversations, particularly when Dee Gordon is around.)
Although the caveats about sample size apply—no defender faces every fielding scenario over a two-series stretch—the Pirates have to be content with what they've seen from Alvarez. His footwork remains a work in progress and his throwing is a question mark, but there's reason to think he can develop into an average or better defender with additional reps due to his athleticism and hands.
Of course first base is an offensive position foremost, so Alvarez becoming a Casey Kotchman-like defender is irrelevant if he can't swing the bat. Luckily, Alvarez's early-season returns at the plate are promising. His trademark power, which slipped last season along with his throwing, has returned and has resulted in four extra-base hits (perhaps due to the lessened burden in the field?). Add in Clint Hurdle's aggressive platooning—Alvarez has faced righties in more than 90 percent of his trips to the plate—and there's reason to think Alvarez will continue to be a two-way asset for the Pirates.
Special thanks to Craig Goldstein for visual assistance.