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.
(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:
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.