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Dejan Kovacevic's Blog

Pittsburgh sports talk with the Trib columnist

Kovacevic: Hitting coach’s hat hangs on Pedro

I can recall Spin Williams, the Pirates’ erstwhile pitching coach, once telling me his job depended almost entirely on whether he would – or wouldn’t – be able to solve Oliver Perez.

Remember Perez?

The lanky Mexican lefty rang up 239 strikeouts in 2004 while routinely throwing 98 mph. But soon, mysteriously or not, the velocity fell. As did the numbers. And, just as Spin called it, he was canned in late 2005.

An assistant coach in any sport is a specialist by trade and, as such, can become the singular point man charged with squeezing the most out of athletes whose potential greatly dwarfs their performance.

532665_90x135This is Gregg Ritchie’s world now, too.

If you don’t know Ritchie, you should. He’s the Pirates’ hitting coach, overseeing the worst offense we’ve seen in years – let that context soak in – through this 8-10 start.

How bad?

• The Pirates are batting a collective .211. For you 19th century history buffs, that’s 19 points below the franchise low of .230 in 1890.

• They’ve scored 41 runs. The A’s are a distant next-to-last in the majors at 59.

• They homer every 64 at-bats, matching Kevin Polcovich’s rate in 1997.

Neil Walker doesn’t have an extra-base hit. He bats cleanup.

• No one’s bothered to issue them an intentional walk.

I could do this all day.

This is Ritchie’s world, just as it’s Clint Hurdle’s. The Pirates’ manager previously was the hitting coach of a loaded lineup in Texas. Both men work with the Pirates’ hitters, but neither has gotten much out of them. Not this year, not last year.

Quick, name one hitter on the 2011 roster who even improved.

“Obviously, we’re better than we’ve shown,” Ritchie said in a talk we had during the Colorado series this week. “As Clint’s said, it’s a matter of coming up with the big hit at the right time, letting yourselves breathe and not forcing the issue.”

That’s pretty much the Pirates’ stance on this start: They opened against a string of Cy Youngs, lost confidence and are now clawing to get it back.

To an extent, I’ll buy it. You won’t see six of the 13 position players bat .200 or lower all year. And Walker won’t stay at .224.

But I’ll also repeat what I’ve been saying for a long time now: Everything changes with an as-advertised version of Alvarez in the heart of the order.

Along with his own output, the benefits include protection for Andrew McCutchen, Walker dropping to fifth and others falling into places that make sense.

“I wouldn’t dispute any of that,” Ritchie said. “But I also wouldn’t doubt that Pedro has the talent and work ethic to make that happen. We’re starting to see signs of it now.”

Indeed, Alvarez is 5 for his past 15, with a bomb in both games of the doubleheader Wednesday. For a guy still stuck at .156, it’s a start.

It’s certainly a lot more encouraging than the piece in the new Baseball America that asks if Alvarez could become “the biggest waste of hitting talent in draft history.” It quotes scouts suggesting he’s already a bust, after all of 627 at-bats.

“Oh, absolutely not,” Ritchie said, laughing. “It’s still a small window we’re looking at, way early to be making a judgment like that. The capability’s there. Look, we see it every day.”

The exasperation and exhilaration that accompanies Alvarez’s swings at the plate and in general performance – yes, among fans, too — was on full display in the 48-hour set with the Rockies.

Tuesday afternoon, Ritchie reinforced a recent point of emphasis for Alvarez to stroke the ball the other way and, in the process, envision right-center as his new foul line.

“It forces Pedro to stay back on the ball,” Ritchie explained.

Alvarez took it into batting practice in a big way.

“Two balls off the monster,” Ritchie said, referring to PNC Park’s tall batter’s eye beyond center field. “It was amazing.”

Alvarez was shielded from a lefty again that night, and he opened Wednesday with one of those grotesquely passive three-pitch whiffs.

But his next at-bat saw a lasered out to deep left. Other way. Looked good.

The next saw a tying blast into the right-center seats. His revised foul pole.

And Game 2 saw him clang one off the real right foul pole. Because foul is the new fair.

“It’s all there,” Ritchie said. “It’s just transferring it to the game. It’s trust.”

Can we trust that this week’s version is the real Pedro?

Ritchie had better hope so. This could be his Oliver Perez.

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