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A collective approach and early signs of an Alvarez breakout?

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SOUTH HILLS –  I thought one Pedro Alvarez plate appearance last night at Chicago was particularly interesting and it was not his hardest-hit ball, the end result of his first-inning plate appearance. No, it came with one out in the eighth inning of a tied game, with runners on first and second, and Cubs lefty James Russell was brought in to face Alvarez, whose struggles with lefties have been well documented.

Alvarez restrained himself from swinging at a steady diet of tempting off-speed stuff and drew a walk, his sixth in seven games this season –  a rare stretch of patience for Alvarez.

Russell Martin followed with a sacrifice fly (noteworthy that it was to the opposite field), scoring Starling Marte who had walked. The Pirates scored the go-ahead run without the benefit of a hit, rather through patience (three walks) and situational hitting, two elements often lacking last season.

Hitting coaches and players always talk a good game. They always talk about going with the pitch, about being patient, about using the whole field. But it’s a much different thing to actually execute such plans in games. Too often last season, Clint Hurdle saw his lineup trying to do too much with one swing. And perhaps as offensive struggles mounted as the pressure to do too much rose collectively.

But this spring we’ve seen what appears to be a buy-in to a collective approach.

We saw Martin lace a key RBI single in the Cardinals’ series to the opposite field. We’ve seen Travis Snider and Tony Sanchez use the opposite field (see: Sanchez’s game-winner on Sunday). For the Pirates, most important is it appears Alvarez is buying into the all-fields approach, which is in turn allowing him to longer see pitches – and better lay off out-of-zone breaking balls.

Of the 21 balls Alvarez has put in play, 10 have gone to the opposite field including a 417-foot homer last week off Shelby Miller. Alvarez has driven several other balls with authority to the opposite field, just missing another opposite-field home run against the Cardinals last week.

Of Alvarez’s 36 home runs last season, just three went to the opposite field. For his career, only 21 percent of his career batted balls (241/1,131) have gone to left field. In a very small sample,  just under 50 percent are traveling to left field this April.

Now trusting an approach is one thing, seeing results and evidence is another. So while it’s early I think it’s probably important for the “buy in” Hurdle speaks of that the Pirates’ lineup, collectively, sees results. Thus far they are.

- TS

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Comments

  1. bradthedad says:

    Cause for excitement. Much chatter last year of bumping him to cleanup but despite the HRs, Hurdle did the right thing by being patient and allowing him to develop. As you said, it’s early but it looks promising. A effective Cutch-Pedro combo could be scary good.

  2. Jim S. says:

    Another great topic, Travis! I really appreciate that you always bring interesting concepts for Bucs fans like us to kick around here.

    I really like what Pedro is doing, and the same goes for Marte. They both are showing that a player can improve his plate discipline if he puts his mind to it and works at it. Now, can they keep it up? We’ll see. But, so far, so good.

    As for Pedro and others going the other way, I like that approach as well. For my money, just about the best in the league at that right now are Holliday and Craig. I’ve even noticed that Adams seems to be taking a cue from them. With the prevalence of shifts now taking place in MLB, I believe all smart players are trying to keep the defense honest by using as much of the field as possible. It was a skill that seemed to me to be waning, but might be coming back more in vogue now.

  3. macchamp74 says:

    An at bat we probably would not have seen out of Pedro last year. Very impressive plate discipline.

  4. Ghost says:

    Hi Jim. Biz here. :-D

    Excellent point about the shifts and how the smart players will respond. I’d even venture to say that ONLY the players who show they can make this adjustment will swim in this new world of heat maps, matchup simulations — defense by computer, esentially. Then again, back in the 1880′s Wee Willie Keeler was “hittin’ ‘em where they ain’t.” So maybe nothing is truly new. Gosh baseball is eternally fun!

  5. Jim S. says:

    That was funny, Ghost! :-)

  6. Jim S. says:

    Oh, and I think I have read that the SABR guys are not so sure that these shifts are working just yet, overall. I believe I read that they are attributing the drop in batting averages in recent years mainly to increased strikeouts moreso than shifting at this point. I wonder how that breaks out on a team-by-team basis. I also wonder if it is just a case of refining this stuff a bit more as time goes on.

    Or, could it be that some teams have no idea what they are doing with shifts and are hurting more than helping themselves?

    Andrew is usually on top of this stuff. I’d be interested in what he has learned about that.

  7. Andrew says:

    Travis more good stuff, in one of the dead periods of baseball analysis. I find it interesting that there seems to be discussion surrounding the Pirates approach at the plate talking about going the opposite way coming from different sources. John Wehner was talking about it as it concerns Martin last night during the broadcast, (I’m not going to give Martin credit for the sac fly, physically fly balls go to opposite field, groundball to the pull side, on average.)

    However as you write there seems to be a change in the team’s approach from Jay Bell and his fastball hunting. It will be interesting to follow I don’t view MLB hitters as overly malleable products, but changes around margins can be significant.

  8. Andrew says:

    Don’t make me something more that someone who reads too much about baseball. But the drop in averages is strike out related, I have seen people claim the shifts have an effect but league wide BABIP has been hovering around .300 for some time. The guys who wrote The Book have been talking about the lack of a decline in BABIP on their blog for like the last three years.

    Take the Pirates if you have a groundball heavy staff, BABIP will climb a little because groundballs are hits at higher rates than flyballs, but then shifting will take away some of those hits, lowering BABIP. The other thing groundball and shifting will do is lower extra base hits especially to pull happy lefties.

    There is a tipping point, if lefties cannot go the opposite way with any consistency, they could start laying down bunts, but bunting is hard and your not going to bunt any over the fence.

  9. Brendan says:

    With the obvious caveat that it’s very very early, several of Alvarez’s plate discipline stats prior to tonight’s game via Fangraphs:

    Pitches swung at Outside the Strike Zone

    2014 – 27.4%
    2013 – 35.2%
    Career – 33.2%

    Pitches swung at Inside the Strike Zone

    2014 – 66.7%
    2013 – 72.6%
    Career – 67.8%

    Swinging Strike %

    2014 – 11.2%
    2013 – 16.4%
    Career – 14.3%

    If you want to dig deeper: http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=2495&position=3B#platediscipline

  10. Nate83 says:

    Nice information Brendan. Thanks for sharing.

    Early signs are very encouraging. If he can reduce his strike out rate to something more reasonable like 25% he would gain about 40 balls in play. That alone will raise his batting average about 20 points. I would argue maybe even more because being more patient will get him deeper in counts and have him seeing more hittable pitches and a greater chance of a mistake pitch.

    8 games is hardly enough to know that this early approach will remain but if it does he becomes a very valuable player that we can enjoy for at least a few more years. He will never be a player that hits for average but if he can get up around .260 or .270 he becomes a completely different player. That average isn’t achievable with a 33% strike out rate.

  11. Travis Sawchik says:

    In know it’s early, but two more Alvarez HRs last night … one to left-center and another to just left of the 400 ft mark. Looks like a different guy, backed up by the early strike zone control Brendan shared

  12. Nate83 says:

    Really can’t ask for a better start for Alvarez mentally. He is seeing concrete evidence that he can wait on the ball and still has enough power to hit the ball out of the park to the opposite field. I hope he takes 20-30 feet off of his average home run distance. That means he is hitting the ball where it’s pitched and not trying to pull everything to right.

    His approach at the end of last year and in the playoffs is another good sign that this could be him going forward. Obviously the 13% strike out rate isn’t going last but it will be lower if he continues this approach. I think Travis may have been the one to mention a Chris Davis like break out year could be possible. Wow that would be such a boost to this team. Look what it did for Baltimore and their pitching is nowhere near what the Pirates currently have.

  13. Andrew says:

    Good stuff, also of note his O-Contact% is up to go along with the decline in O-Swing%. Could be a blip, could be a trend.

  14. NMR says:

    Great Blog, Travis.

    Pedro has always hit more fly balls the opposite way than pull, so one could argue that his 48% fly ball rate this season is the cause of what appears to be an oppo heavy approach.

    Andrew’s got me convinced that it is in fact the opposite, however. That focussing oppo is the cause of his increased fly ball rate. I said over the winter that Pedro hits 40 HR if he hits 40% of his balls in the air and Andrew reminded me that batted ball types are usually fairly stable and a large increase in fly balls would be unlikely.

    I wonder if this still applies if a given batter changes his overall approach, as Petey seems to be trying to do?

  15. NMR says:

    I also think Pedro is doing it the right way, unlike Matt Adams.

    Adams is in the big leagues because of his power. His power is to the pull side. Watching him set up and try to slap balls the other way had me shaking my head.

  16. Brendan says:

    Normally I wouldn’t even bother posting stats that apply to such a small sample size.

    The Pedro Alvarez Experience has always been a rollercoaster ride of stunning production followed by stretches of looking entirely lost. I tend to think this is something more than early season hot streak however.

    The oppo power and plate discipline how are things we’ve not seen before, even during the hottest of streaks.

    Last year in particular I made studying his tendency during those streaks vs. the cold stretches a bit of project. I was curious if there was a discernible difference in approach. I may have posted about it a few times in fact. The short answer was no, or at least I couldn’t perceive one. Even doing those streaks his contact rate was about the same, in some cases even worse than his seasonal average.

    He won’t continue at his current pace 13.9 K% and 16.7 BB%. But obviously he doesn’t need to. Even a moderate leap forward would make him one of the more dangerous hitters in baseball.

    I’d also not that his BABIP is currently .143 (his career average is .296) and he’s putting up a 1.028 OPS despite that.

  17. NMR says:

    EXCELLENT comment, Brendan!!! Absolutely nailed it.

  18. NMR says:

    I’ve also noticed that he’s changed his swing. Less pre-pitch movement up top and the front side of his lower half is staying strong, not allowing his hips to fly open.

    Absolutely could lead to sustained contact to the opposite field.

  19. NorthPiratesFan says:

    I certainly won’t disagree with anything you said TS but I have to feel like you’re being a bit remiss in not mentioning Jeff Branson in any of this.

    For several years now I’ve been carping about the tendency of Pirates’ prospects to shed their patience and strike zone command as well other skills upon being promoted from AAA to the majors and being instructed by IMO some of the worst hitting coaches (and managers) upon their arrival as well as calling for Jeff Branson to be made the hitting coach and/or manager.

    Through out almost the entire lineup hitters are showing more patience, drawing more walks, cutting down on strike outs and becoming more like the hitters they were that made them top prospects in the first place.

    Maybe it’s just very small sample size aberrations, maybe it’s a coincidence but I have to believe until I see otherwise that Jeff Branson’s influences has to be playing a significant part in what we’re seeing so far.

  20. Brendan says:

    Travis has mentioned Chris Davis as Pedro’s ceiling quite a bit this offseason. At the moment that’s not looking like such a pipe dream. But of course we are 8 games in.

    With regard to fly ball rates here are Davis’s for his breakout year in 2013 and the twos seasons prior:

    2011 – 36.8 %
    2012 – 37.5 %
    2013 – 45.7 %

    Here are Pedro’s for so far this season and the two years prior:

    2012 – 34.5%
    2013 – 36.4%
    2014 – 48.0%

  21. NMR says:

    Thanks for the data backup, Brendan!

    Davis was my comp for Pedro when I started this fly ball crusade. Absolutely has been a game changer.

  22. Andrew says:

    Exactly, taking pitches the opposite way will drive down those power numbers, unless you have elite power. I think Matt Adams is trying to morph into a gap power guy the Cardinals seem too have a ton of, not sure that is the best approach, but it is early.

  23. Andrew says:

    I agree this is a something to watch, like I said above I have been reading/hearing from different sources stories about the change in the Pirates approach. I’m skeptical that a change in hitting coach at the major league level is going to produce radical change, Branson was here last year and the 2nd in command to Jay Bell, but we will see.

    Tony Blengino at Fangraphs (formerly of Seattle and Milwaukee’s front office) had an interesting piece on early season trends with this quote about the Pirates.

    “The Pirates’ ceiling might be lower this year, but their floor has risen. A.J. Burnett, who allowed the most grounders on the Pirates’ 2013 grounder-generating machine, is gone, so they have to find another way. So far, so good, as the club is walking more at the plate (19 walks combined by Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Starling Marte through April 8), and striking out more of their opponents (check out Charlie Morton‘s 11 K in 12 IP). They’ll still get more than their share of grounders, even with Burnett’s absence. The Pirates’ fundamentals are sound – they aren’t going away anytime soon.”

    All of these trends are encouraging but the huge caveat is they have come while playing over half of the games against a team projected win 74 games. However, it is better than the alternative losing, and looking bad doing it.

  24. NMR says:

    From everything I’ve read, I gather he honestly believes he needs to beat the shift in order to become a better hitter. Completely misses the point. I just don’t believe a guy the strikes out a quarter of the time has the contact and hit tool to become a guy that can place the ball where he wants with enough regularity to actually be worth sacrificing his one and only plus tool.

    It is obviously early, but he only has one XBH against the shift and that is only because the Reds were stupid enough to overshift their infielders AND outfielders, leaving all of left field open. Something to keep an eye on, btw. Managers can do some really, really dumb things.

  25. Jim S. says:

    Thanks, Andrew. Good take.

    I like your point that the Bucs’ BABIP against might climb a little due to a ground ball heavy staff, while shifting takes away more hits – thus maybe balancing things out. I guess, in the big scheme of things, the biggest reason for building a ground ball staff is that they yield less XBH. Then, throw in an OF that can run down more balls (especially once GP arrives) than anyone else, and we may really cut down the XBH in the 2nd half of the season. It is good to be a LHP, pitching in PNC, for the Pirates. A lot of things would be working in your favor.

  26. NMR says:

    Blengino has been a HUGE get for FanGraphs, eh? First time I’ve ever heard “upward mobility” used to describe ballplayers!

  27. Nate83 says:

    I agree completely. They had a good discussion last night on MLB Network about shifts. Herald Reynolds who says almost nothing I agree with when it comes to strategy hated them. The other two guys thought if implemented correctly they can give a team an advantage. Reynolds kept saying why would you want Cabrera to know you are pitching him inside. The one guy kept telling him you don’t necessarily pitch to the shift on every pitch.

    Those who are against the shift will point out Rizzo beat the shift twice last night. Completely disregarding that he hit two bloopers that would have dropped in against a normal defensive alignment and made poor contact on both his hits to left.

  28. Andrew says:

    I heard the same conversation, if lefty sluggers are trying to flare single to left, the shift has already won.

    I thought Reyonlds made a good point, it is very rare, he said going the opposite way is a fine approach in certain spots. It is not really an epiphany but I assume that most major league hitters are optimized, and can make changes at the margins, but if they attempt too much of a change they risk losing what made them major league hitters in the first place.

  29. Andrew says:

    He has some written some great stuff using the access to the proprietary data he has. His presentation can be maddening, the charts are not the most readable. I like this piece, probably because it has some good stuff on the Pirates, but cannot shake the fact that it is seven games, four them against the Cubs.

    http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/some-early-season-macro-trends-and-observations/

  30. NMR says:

    Haha, man, I don’t know why you guys do it to yourselves. Glad my wife doesn’t care to watch anything but the games.

  31. NMR says:

    I read enough technical writing that Blengino’s stuff still seems pretty approachable, but I do get what you’re saying.

  32. Jim S. says:

    I have seen a few popups drop harmlessly near 3b this year because the shift has a 3b playing SS and no one was able to catch the ball. It got me to wondering who is figuring this possibility into their shifts? If you have a ball park like Oakland, for example, you might be giving up a bunch of outs over the course of a season if your 3b played off the line a lot.

  33. NMR says:

    Jim,

    The worst offenders in all of baseball pop balls up about 15% of contact, whereas any guy that gets shifted hits groundballs at a rate of at least double that, and almost exclusively to the pull side.

    Interesting thought, but I can’t imagine the numbers working out favorably.

  34. Travis Sawchik says:

    Thanks, Jim. I think the first week has been interesting from an offensive approach perspective. Sure, small sample size applies but it does seem like there’s a much sounder offensive approach.

  35. NorthPiratesFan says:

    I don’t see it so much as Branson as the hitting coach making things happen as much as allowing the hitters to do what comes naturally to them. And as far as him being here last year I always thought the arrangement with Bell was unusual and there was more going on behind the scenes with competing philosophies that the team was letting on and Bell being gone after on year is because he lost Hurdle’s and/or Huntington’s confidence with his approach and results.

    Going all the way back to the Chad Hermanson days all up through to Pedro Alvarez the Pirates have had a steady stream of prospects who showed very good plate discipline in college and the lower levels who upon arriving at AAA, during the Trent Jewitt/Richie Hebner days, or the majors under McClendon, Russell and Tracy, would abruptly shed that discipline. During those days all of them coaching at those level chanted the same mantra of aggressive approaches, putting the ball in play at any cost and poo-pooed the value of walks.

    Pedro Alvarez in college and the minors always was a very patient and disciplined hitter who stopped being so upon arriving in Pittsburgh because IMO his coaches were telling hit to be aggressive, hit for power because that’s what they wanted from him.

    I think, or perhaps I hope, what we may be seeing here is a fundamental shift in the Pirates hitting philosophy and Branson not so much having a magic touch and doing anything for the hitters other than understanding the value of a different approach to hitting and encouraging these guys to be the hitters their natural abilities will allow them to be.

    I’d love to hear Neil Walkers comments on Branson’s impact in this regard considering he was on the verge of being let go from the Pirates until Branson became his coach and he suddenly became the patient hitter he had been previously before suffering under Hebner and Jewitt.

  36. Travis Sawchik says:

    Thanks, NMR.

    Good observation on Pedro’s early flyball rate … flyballs are of course spread at a more even distribution than ground balls and Pedro has seen his flyball rate trend the right way in each of the previous three seasons. Another bump up would be big for a guy with a 20+ percent HR/FB rate.

  37. Travis Sawchik says:

    Andrew,

    Interesting question. It’s my understanding that Jay Bell preached much the same message last season and there is a common threat linking both coaches in Hurdle’s oversight.

    Now, I think the players trust Branson more because he has worked with so many of them at the milb level. I also suspect last season’s issues has given the lineup more incentive to be open to suggestions on approach … and the Pirates took thousands of more swings this spring than last spring.

    Moreover, all these players are a year older with hundreds of more plate appearances under their belts and perhaps becoming less stubborn, perhaps becoming a little more open, perhaps studying more video. (Pedro Alvarez hinted to me this spring he was aware of Chris Davis’ change in approach.)

    Lot of factors at play but I do think there is noticeable change.

    Small sample? Yes. But that doesn’t mean it’s not meaningful.

  38. Rich Kuklinski says:

    Bradthedad. It will be scary. For this year only as Pistol Petey will have to be traded like the
    Last thumping 3rd baseman we had. Aramis Ramirez

 
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