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Is Pedro Alvarez really improving? And who do you give the ball to in a Game 1?

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SOUTH HILLS COMMAND CENTER – In the Pirates’ 60th win of the season (Yes, it’s still July), Pedro Alvarez hit his 26th home run of the campaign, which ties him for the NL lead.

 

Barring injury, Alvarez is headed for his second straight 30-home run campaign. He could hit 40. This is the sort of power the Pirates were expecting when they made him the second overall pick in the 2008 draft.

 

The boos that greeted him with nearly every plate appearance at PNC Park this April seem to be a distant memory. But is Alvarez really improving?

 

That seems like a ridiculous question, I know.

 

But consider this: Alvarez is striking out more, walking less, and chasing more pitches out of the strike zone more this season than compared to his career averages.

 

*Alvarez is striking out in 32 percent of his plate appearances this season. His career mark is 31 percent.

 

*Alvarez is walking in 7.8 percent of his plate appearances. His career mark is 9.2 percent.

 

*Alvarez is swinging at pitches out of the strike zone with 37.1 percent of his swings, well above his career mark of 33 percent.

 

And he’s been below his career marks in each of those categories in every month except July this season. This is not the profile of a guy who is improving as a hitter.

 

pedro

 (Is Pedro really breaking out?)

 

His breakout has been mostly the product of an likely unsustainable 30.5 percent home run rate on flyballs. (20 percent is considered elite). Is Pedro stronger? Perhaps … but his home runs are leaving his bat on average at 105.6 mph this season which isn’t much different than his 2011 rate of 105.2 mph.

 

OK, enough rain on the Pedro breakout parade.

 

There are two areas, besides more HRs, where that Pedro has shown real improvement. The most apparent is he’s  hitting more flyballs.

 

Here is his ground-to-flyball ratio since 2011:

 

2011: 2.16

 

2012: 1.36

 

2013: 1.02

 

Alvarez has shown a three-year trend of hitting fewer groundballs and more flyballs, which is important for a home run hitter. So even if his HR/FB rate regresses some, he’s still going to be an above average home run hitter.

 

Alvarez is also hitting more balls squarely. His line-drive percentage is up and he’s hitting fewer infield popups than he did in 2011 and 2010. This seems to be contradictory: less contact, but better contact? He’s doing most of his damage against fastballs … so is he starting his swing earlier but becoming more vulnerable to offspeed pitches? I don’t know.

 

I asked Alvarez about his increased flyball percentage earlier this season, and Pedro didn’t offer me much enlightenment on the subject. But whether it’s a conscious decision on improving skill or not, the skill is improving.

 

I may seem like I’m down on Alvarez. I’m not. A 3B who plays solid defense, and who has improved his defense, and can slug 30 home runs is a valuable chip. I thought the Pirates should have been serious about trying to extend him prior to June, maybe they were though Scott Boras didn’t indicate as much.  That  possibility has now probably long left the stables.

 

Alvarez is a legit power threat. He’s valuable. But in a Jeff Locke sort of way is this sustainable? His last 50 games might be a peak in performance not a new expected baseline.

 

WHO DO YOU GIVE THE BALL TO IN GAME 1?

 

I know some of you believe in jinxes around here but I have to say it anyways: Baseball Prospectus is giving the Pirates a 97 percent chance of making the playoffs.

 

The Pirates own the No. 1 wild card, are a game back of StL for first-place in the division, and  have a nine-game lead on Arizona for the second wild card. The Pirates are 60-39.

 

So let’s start looking ahead. And, hey, it kind of feels like October out today, doesn’t it?

 

Our own Dejan Kovacevic wondered this in his column today: who do you give the ball to in Game 1 of a playoff series – or perhaps the play-in wild card game – if you’re the Pirates?

 

The obvious answer earlier this season was A.J. Burnett. But, man, did Francisco Liriano look great last night in picking up his 10th win. He no hit the Nationals into the sixth and his fastball touched 97 mph, the fastest he has thrown a pitch since 2010. His slider was sharp at 89 mph and he even mixed in a fading changeup.

 

Liriano has to be the best free agent value signing of the offseason.

 

Liriano is the guy I turn to in a Game 1. Burnett in a Game 2 and probably Jeff Locke in a Game 3, though Gerrit Cole is pulling at my heartstrings.

 

It’s an interesting question and in late September it should be a very real and prominent question. Emphasis on should.

 

- TS

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Comments

  1. Derek Smith says:

    Playoff baseball in the Burgh. Still sounds too good to be true.

    I say Jeff Locke should get the ball in game 1. He has been as consistent as anyone. But, really, I wouldn’t complain with anyone of the 5 getting the ball in game 1 right now. And don’t forget about Wandy Rodriguez, if he can come back strong. And Charlie Morton has even looked really good. I honestly can’t say any of those 6 (Wandy included) would be a bad option right now.

    And on the Pedro thing, I appreciate numbers as much as anyone, Travis, but this is where I think it is easy to read into them too much. Average – .244, HR – 26, RBI – 64, OPS – 813, Games – 91. That is all I need.

    But nice piece, Travis. Fine read. I am getting goosebumps just talking about Game 1′s! LETS GO BUCS!

  2. gary brant says:

    whats the status of Liriano’s contract for next year

  3. NMR says:

    Nice blog, Travis. I love playing this game.
    .
    You invoke everyones favorite new question: is *blank* sustainable?
    .
    Pedro’s HR/FB rate at 30% is absolutely high. But is it higher than anyone should expect? Adam Dunn finished last year with the same ratio. Very similar hitters. Pedro himself finished last year with a 25% ratio, while hitting less fly balls as you note. Locke’s success is routinely cited as unsustainable due to his .223 BABIP against, which happens to be 73 points higher than any BABIP he’s put up as a pro. Not sure if his “unsustainableness” and Pedro’s are on quite the same level.
    .
    Speaking of the holy grail of sabermetric sustainability, Pedro himself is only sporting a BABIP of .285, down from his career average of .305. Digging further his BABIP against righties, of whom he collects the majority of his hits, is only .267.
    .
    As for the walk rate, a drop doesn’t automatically equate to worse performance. While he is swinging at roughly 4% more pitches OUT of the zone, he’s also swinging at 6% more pitches IN the zone. His first pitch strike percentage is also about 2% less, meaning he’s working himself into more hitters counts. Pedro has been viewed anecdotally in the past as a hitter who is too passive and doesn’t attack the ball as a power hitter should. A greater increase in swings at strikes than swings at balls could easily be seen as a positive sign, even if it causes a 2% drop in walks (which works out to about 12 actual walks over the course of a season).
    .
    No way around his drop in contact percentage, but the obvious silver lining there is that unless you view Pedro as a player in decline due to age or ability, some regression should be expected, no?
    .
    So while YOU believe YOUR numbery stats ‘n such depict a hitter who ISN’T improving, I believe MY numbery stats ‘n such depict a hitter who IS.
    .
    None of this is a criticism or even a critique, just simply showing that an opposing case can be made.

  4. Nate83 says:

    Good information NMR. This just shows that depending on what stats you look at you can make an arguement one way or the other for almost anything in baseball.
    .
    I would like to think Pedro is starting to turn the corner. He will always strike out a lot and never hit for a high average but if he can just avoid those months where he bats .140 and only hits 1 or 2 HR’s you can deal with those strike out and average because he can single handedly win alot more games then he loses.

  5. Jordan White says:

    Awesome post.

  6. Terry M says:

    We’re not even out of July. Who the hell knows today who would start in the playoffs in October?

  7. PI Stingray says:

    1. On Pedro: Who really cares what his ‘stats’ are as far as SO%, gb/fb ratio, etc., etc. If he is hitting HRs and getting RBI, he is doing his job and therefore what difference does it make what he does when he’s making an out? Pedro is a perfect example of overemphasizing the importance of ‘stats’.
    2. Really, who would start game 1? I honestly think the cart is getting ahead of the horse here. Yes, the Bucs SHOULD make the playoffs (finally), but its way too early to be even contemplating this question. A VERY lot can happen between now and October. Yes, Liriano has been a pleasant surprise and probably would be the leading candidate to start game 1 right now, but anything can happen in the next two months. We have seen pitchers before, who have either stepped it up in the last couple months or completely fell apart. Let’s just sit back and enjoy the remainder of the regular season and then let the chips fall where they may…..

  8. John says:

    I say give the ball to Jeff Locke. Overall, he has been the most consistent starter
    minus hos first on or two outings.

  9. Bdubb says:

    I think my head just exploded

    One thing I would like to know about Locke, and I don’t have a clue where you guys get these kinds of stats, but if we can see Pedro’s line-drive percentage, what is Locke’s? So if Locke’s BABIP is 73 points higher (is it higher or lower than his best year as a pro?).

    I agree Locke would seem to have to regress but what is his ground ball percentage? Line drives? When you hit spots you can get a lot of weak outs ala Tom Glavine

  10. Nate83 says:

    I’m pretty sure he meant lower meanig is BABIP up until this year in the majors was closer to .300. Although not a really small sample size it was a really large sample size to get that number. That .223 BABIP against is just rediculous That would be a tremendous overall batting average against which his is sitting at .196 right now.

    What is most interesting about Locke is that over his minor league career and even into the majors before this year he had averaged pretty consistantly about 8K/9 and this year he is only getting 6.1K/9. I don’t know what all of it means but apperently the results are there so whatever he is doing the young man should continue doing it.

  11. Nate83 says:

    I know it’s crazy. When do you get to the point when you say with both Locke and Liriano that this is who they are. At least for this year. We are now 15 or so starts on Liriano and 20 or so for Locke. These are more then just a hot streak for pitchers that are in the groove. I have to beleive this is what we will get the rest of the year. Nobody could have seen this coming from these two pitchers.

  12. jdk47 says:

    “solid defense”? He is second in the major leagues in errors and is tied for dead last in fielding percentage of any player with over 100 chances. Statistically he’s the worst infielder in the major leagues. And he’s not hitting his weight with RISP.

  13. NorthPirateFan says:

    “The boos that greeted him with nearly every plate appearance at PNC Park this April seem to be a distant memory.”

    Well they may be a distant memory in the minds of the people who were booing but I’d venture a guess they’re still in the forefront of Alvarez’s mind where they along with articles like this will be the the motivating factor in making sure he’ll bolt Pittsburgh first chances he gets.

    Like Aramis Ramirez before him Alvarez can never seem to do enough to satisfy the fans and local media, and is the perpetual scape goat for any and everything that goes wrong with this team while far lesser players are constantly having unjustified praise heaped upon them by the same people.

    Take all the number used in this piece to try to make the case against Pedro and substitute Starling Marte’s name and numbers for comparison then try to find a single similar critique of one of he worst lead-off hitters in the game.

    Enjoy Pedro while you can people because like Ramirez before him he’s probably already got his eye on the exit door and chomping at the bit to head for it.

  14. BostonsCommon says:

    Under control of the Pirates, for what $6M or $7M. I think after all the hoops were jumped through in regard to his contract, and vesting options, and time on the DL ect.. It ended up being a 2 year deal in the neiborhood of $12-13M total. Great value, probably the best FA signing in Huntington’s career, with R. Martin a close second.

  15. NMR says:

    Bdubb,

    Locke’s Line Drive and Ground Ball rates are 18% and 52% respectively. One could interpret the numbers as saying he’s actually given up MORE solid contact this year…which is completely laughable to anyone who has watched Locke pitch. He may be giving up more line drives, on paper, but he’s giving up WAY less fly balls and less of them are going for homeruns. That was by far his biggest issue over his first two major league stints.

    Just another contradictory example of why NOBODY in this conversation, myself first and foremost, is smart enough to make definitive statements like Jeff Locke WILL regress or Pedro is NOT improving just because we have access to some sabermetric-minded websites.

    Dave Cameron, managing editor of FanGraphs.com (the site I use to get a lot of these numbers), was recently asked something along the lines of why he doesn’t work for a Front Office. His answer was honest, and is greta perspective. He said that he doesn’t work in baseball because those guys are way, way smarter than he is. And he’s the guy who runs the site that gives us the info.

    Puts some perspective on how all this data is used by us and by people who actually know what they’re doing.

  16. Nate83 says:

    I don’t boo at games. I never have and probably never will. I also don’t have a problems with others booing within reason. It’s their right. Alverez got paid a 6 million dollar bonus. The fans indirectly pay for that bonus by purchasing tickets and merchandise. If they are not happy with what their hard earned money is giving them in return a boo when someone is playing as bad as he was in understandable. I would think/hope he was disappointed in the way he was playing and took it in stride.

  17. jdk47 says:

    HRs are overrated. In Pedro’s case he hits an inordinate number of solo HRs and has just as disproportionate number of Ks with RISP. His BA with RISP is also significantly lower than his overall BA. So, even given his high number of HRs, they’re not doing as much good as the damage he’s doing from choking with men in scoring position.

    And statistically he’s the worst fielding infielder in the entire major leagues.

  18. Travis Sawchik says:

    Fielding percentage is a pretty antiquated way to few defensive performance. Some advanced metrics have Alvarez as a slightly above average defender this season

  19. Travis Sawchik says:

    Getting ahead of ourselves? Sure. Simply a thought exercise

  20. Clemson Travis,
    .
    How’s your crusade going with the IT guys to get the clock fixed?
    .
    It helps us to know when people posted, to possibly respond to them.
    .
    If they can’t fix it, make it go away.

  21. Chuck H says:

    I agree with most blogs that Pedro does strike out a lot with RISP. He is not the only Pirate
    to be guilty of this,though. Marte has been striking out a lot lately and so has Andrew
    McCutchen. In fact, the whole team seems to tense up when it sees men on base. That shouldn’t be. We have lost quite a few games because of it. Our loss to the Marlins, at
    least the way we lost, boggles my mind. How many hits did we have with RISP? A grand total of zero. I hope the bats have arrived from Washington by now. They sure weren’t there yesterday. Another no-name pitcher was untouchable for the Bucs, and the pitcher who, I think, should get the ball for the first game of a playoff, if we are even in one, would
    be A.J. Burnett. He is still our best and does not receive any run support hardly ever.
    GO, BUCS!!!

  22. Leo Walter says:

    jdk47 : 40 years ago if the name was Willie Stargell rather than Pedro Alvarez, you would have been whining the same way. I remember those complaints very well,coming from the same kind of people as you.

 
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