Can “Superstar” Pedro Alvarez Materialize?


Apr 25, 2014; St. Louis, MO, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez (24) is called out on strikes with the bases loaded by umpire Will Little (93) during the eighth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. St. Louis defeated Pittsburgh 1-0. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Enigmatic 27-year-old Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who is soft-spoken in interviews and, perhaps smartly, avoids social media, appeared on the MLB Network’s gregarious show “Off the Bat” last night. That Alvarez appeared on such a, for him, high-profile program is not the news, though. The news – and really the comedy, unless you’re a Pirates fan – was that “Off the Bat” referred to Alvarez as a “superstar.”

Sure, “El Toro” was drafted second overall in 2008, with the Pirates strangely choosing Alvarez over future MVP and two-time World Series champion Buster Posey. He also made the All-Star team last year, hitting 36 homers and knocking in 100 RBI, which was 15 more than he collected in 2012. And, coming off an unprecedented RBI-in-every-game playoff performance (6 games) in 2013, the baseball world, and especially Pittsburgh faithful, expected Alvarez to become a superstar. Which would essentially mean adding an even mediocre batting average (.250, please?) to his resume and watching his HR and RBI totals rise.

But instead of capitalizing on his promising power and RBI numbers from 2013, Alvarez – who can carry a team for weeks or outright drown it for months – has become one of the least valuable players in baseball, by any standards. The first two months of 2014 have been a seriously depressing step backwards for him, culminating in a 1-for-4, no-RBI, two-strikeout and one-ugly-error day in Queens this afternoon, helping the Pirates drop a series to the lowly Mets.

With all their wild pitches, errors and runners left on base, it seems the Pirates, as June approaches, are even lowlier than the Mets. Alvarez is as much to blame as anyone for the Pirates’ quick return to non-relevance after a Wildcard season that ended a sports-record 20-year losing streak.

Before being dropped from cleanup to sixth in the Pirates’ lineup by jolly manager Clint Hurdle this week, Alvarez had been at the plate with more runners on base than anyone in baseball, chiefly because of reigning MVP Andrew McCutchen’s monster OBP. And, because Alvarez’s OPS has hovered around .670 all season, he has left more runners on base than anyone in baseball.

Optimists – who include Pirates beat writers for the two major Pittsburgh newspapers – point to Alvarez’s slightly (8%) increased walk ratio as proof that he has “taken a step forward” in 2014. But that is baloney. His OBP is nearly identical to 2013, and his OPS is down a nearly unbelievable 100 points.

Though Alvarez’s OPS has decreased every season he’s been a starter – from .788 in 2010 to .784 in 2012 to .770 in 2013 – his power numbers (30 HR in 2012, 36 in 2013) were sexy enough for a lot of people to consider him a very valuable player. But not only would Alvarez’s embarrassing OPS be enough to get him demoted to AAA if he had less service time, his defense is off-the-charts awful this year as well.

Alvarez committed 27 errors at third base in both 2012 and 2013, and this year he’s got 12 and is on pace for more errors than home runs.

Sound like a “superstar”?

Superstars don’t hit .210, and they certainly don’t get the day off when a lefty is pitching, as Alvarez did yesterday. More to the point, they don’t come into a game they were benched for because a lefty was pitching and then ground into an inning-ending double play against a righty, as Alvarez did yesterday.  Clearly Alvarez has talent enough to put his strength together with a dose of much-needed fundamentals and become a seriously valuable player. The question is, at this point, not only why it’s taken him so long to become a professional hitter (not just, several weeks a year, a dangerous power hitter) but whether that transformation will happen.

After hitting six homers in April, and hitting a beyond-terrible .171, Alvarez has hit .250 in May but hit only three homers and slugged just .362. Again, Alvarez would have a very hard time sticking with an MLB team if this was his first season, i.e. first impression. But this bears repeating – his hitting statistics have declined every single season he’s been a major-league starter. And now Alvarez’s defense is hurting the Buccos too.

Alvarez might strike out slightly less this season – perhaps his heinous strikeout totals from 2012 and 2013 (180 and 186) could drop to 150 or 160 this year – but he is consistently hurting his team at the plate and in the field.

Clearly Alvarez’s struggles are the result of mental lapses at the plate and in the field rather than physical ability, but is it a coaching problem? He’s had numerous hitting coaches in MLB, none of them with much MLB coaching pedigree to speak of, and this year (Jeff Branson) a coach who taught Alvarez when he was a minor leaguer and was somehow promoted to the bigs this year to work with very, very strikeout-prone hitters like Alvarez and Starling Marte. Players whose bad habits very well might have been created, or at least exacerbated, in the minors by Branson himself.

It is possible that a proven MLB hitting coach could help Alvarez become a superstar – or at least hit .250 and get his OPS to .800 for the first time in his career. Almost absurdly, the Mets fired their hitting coach earlier this week because of “situational hitting” problems while the Pirates stand pat despite hitters repeatedly, with men on base, striking out without the bat leaving their shoulders.

It is also possible that a different head coach, one who disciplines players and calls them out in the clubhouse and/or even in the media, would help Alvarez progress more effectively than the Santa Claus-esque Clint Hurdle, who often reacts to an 0-5 by Alvarez (and many others) by saying “They need to keep battling and find positives.”

Further, it’s possible that a change of scenery (or the arrival of mega prospect Gregory Polanco) could help Alvarez, who is borderline *shy* at the plate no doubt feels immense pressure in Pittsburgh to drive in runs. The Pirates have one proven above-average hitter (McCutchen) and one, the homegrown Neil Walker, coming into his own offensively this year. (Walker might end up with 25 HR and an .800 OPS this season.)

How this season plays out – Alvarez could still go on a tear and end up with 30 HR, 90 RBI and a .780 OPS…or he could end up 25, 75 and .680 – will be especially interesting because of arbitration. If he at least repeat last year’s stats, Alvarez could command $10 million in arbitration, twice his 2013 salary.
If Alvarez, who is not a free agent until 2017, stays on his current path (more errors than HR and an OPS 100 points lower than 2013, which was lower than 2012) the Pirates will have bigger decisions to make than whether to trade an expensive power-hitting 3B Aramis Ramirez-style to a team more willing to pay him.

Pedro Alvarez El Toro photoshop

Though Pittsburgh is only 5.5 games out of the Wildcard race, eight teams are ahead. Five have positive run differentials, while the Pirates are a disastrous -28. One thing’s certain, as it was last year (and probably to Alvarez’s dismay): The Pirates will only go as far in the standings as their pitching and Alvarez’s bat takes them.

Right now, that’s the cellar of the National League.