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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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