Pedro Alvarez deserves a shot at batting cleanup
Pedro Alvarez continues to absolutely demolish opposing pitchers this spring, as evidenced by his Graprefruit League-leading HR and RBI totals. During the “practice” months, The Big Bull has flourished, with a slashline of .318/.340/.773 to go along with those leading totals of five home runs and 17 RBI. An engaged Pedro has been a productive Pedro, and in addition to his offense, he is holding his own at first base in the field. Still cynical about Alvarez at first? That’s fine, and even understandable. But I implore you to please at least allow yourself the chance to be proven wrong. And that may very well happen, if he continues to make plays like this:
We are not here today to talk about Alvarez’ defense. No, it’s all about that bat right now, and as I watched Alvarez launch another cannonball, I decided that it is time that Pedro Alvarez gets a shot at batting cleanup.
Now that I’ve put that out there, I’m going to show you some evidence that is not very helpful to my case. Behold Alvarez’ career stats split by batting order:
Those numbers in the cleanup spot just don’t look all that enticing. But, I’m going to tell you the one reason why they cannot be fully trusted. First, just look at that .BABIP (Batting average on balls in play) figure when he bats fourth. Alvarez’ career in the fourth-spot can perhaps just be seen as at the very least somewhat-unlucky. To put it in perspective, the league average for this stat is almost always right around .300, according to FanGraphs. Second, if we look at his strikeout rate in the fourth spot, we see a percentage of 32.2%, a hare below his K% rate in his more-familiar sixth spot (34.1%). This tells me that he may benefit from having better protection behind him while batting at number four. Again, much like his other peripherals, the difference in strikeout rate may not seem like much on its own merit, but coupled with his .BABIP, one can see why his slashline is anything but encouraging.
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Yet, despite all of this, I am still hoping that Clint Hurdle decided to give Pedro a chance at cleanup when the team comes north. It may very well end up being a one-month experiment, or even a one-week venture. However, to me, there are three reasons for Hurdle to do so.
The first one is simple: he is absolutely locked in. This spring we have seen him do everything you hope your slugger can do – stay in against left and right handed pitching, hit to all fields, and don’t strikeout. Alvarez has struck out 10 times thus far in camp. While you may immediately tell me that the sample size is too small, that is good for a strikeout rate of 22.7%. If we project that to equal his career Ks and ABs in the cleanup spot, that is still a vast improvement at just under 23%.
An engaged Pedro has been a productive Pedro, and in addition to his offense, he is holding his own at first base in the field. Still cynical about Alvarez at first? That’s fine, and even understandable. But I implore you to please at least allow yourself the chance to be proven wrong.
Hurdle should also look at how the lineup would look if Pedro hit fourth. If that were to happen, the top two-thirds of the probable Pirates batting order would look like this: Josh Harrison (R), Neil Walker (S), Andrew McCutchen (R), Alvarez (L) and Starling Marte (R). If you’re playing along at home, that means the batters would alternate right-left at all of the natural run-producing spots, and I haven’t even mentioned left-hand bat Gregory Polanco batting sixth. This alternating could give right-handed heavy pitching rotations fits.
Perhaps the two Pirates that will benefit most from Alvarez holding down the fourth spot would be McCutchen and Marte. Marte’s continuing maturation should not be ignored, and that process has as much to do with Pedro batting fourth as his hot start does. The protection that comes with a confident El Toro at cleanup will do wonders for McCutchen. For that matter, with Pedro fourth and Walker second, everyone from 1-6 has very good protection, which could help the Pirates offense break out in big ways.
Lastly, it would give Pedro confidence. While it is always incredibly hard to gauge these types of intangible qualities, anyone could see just how far into his own head Alvarez was in 2014. By the time the decision was made to move him to first, there wasn’t a single at-bat from Alvarez that didn’t carry a world of weight. Now, with a clear head and a seemingly-smooth transition to first, a simple reward from Hurdle and his staff may propel him to carry this hot start far into the summer.
This may not work. Alvarez may revert to his more free-swinging ways and take a step back.
Or he may surprise us all.
Only one way to find out.