This is a question that I think a lot of people ask themselves through a typical Pirates season over the past couple of years. Before I get into this I must admit that this is a question that is not going to be able to be answered. All we know for sure is this is a guy that is going to strikeout greater than 30% of his plate appearances and someone that has some of the best raw power in the game. When he does put balls in play they can go a long way and that is what keeps us fixated on the player that is Pedro Alvarez.
We have seen some of the best of Alvarez and some of the worst. It is really a frustrating thing to watch because when he is good he brings that Sidney Crosby vibe when he comes to the plate. You know, the type of player that you wait to go to the bathroom because he is up. I won't say it is the same feeling you get when Crosby gets the puck and goes one-on-on with some joke defenseman but I think you can put them in the same breath. The problem is when he is bad, he is REALLY bad. Kind of like watching Brian Bixler hit bad. I hate Brian Bixler.
We all know what happened with Alvarez. He was drafted second overall in 2008 and he was thought to be the big Pirates bat that was going to be the first person to highlight the new management team's plan to finally rebuild the team. He made his debut halfway through the 2010 season and did pretty well for himself hitting for a .256/.326/.461 line with 16 home runs in only 95 games (386 plate appearances). Most thought that while pitchers would be able to exploit him and his 30+% strikeout rate he would still be able to make up for that with a decent walk rate (9.6%) and the raw power that we all heard about from his time at Vanderbilt.
This was actually one of my favorite YouTube's of all time from when he was drafted:
That is what the kids like to refer to as "swag".
From that point on things looked really down for Alvarez. In the 2011 season he was just flat out brutal. He played in only 74 games for the Pirates and was sent down to AAA thanks to a .191/.272/.289 line. Despite hitting 18 home runs he couldn't overcome the near 31% strikeout rate and posted a -0.9 fWAR for the Pirates. He was sent down to AAA and most were hoping this was just a case of the "sophomore slump" where the pitchers were able to get a book on him and he would have to make the adjustment to become a big lead hitter.
2012 started a tough journey where in the first 55 games of the year Alvarez hit .189/.274/.373 with eight home runs and 65 strikeouts in only 205 plate appearances (32%). There was legitimate talk of sending him back down to AAA for the second straight season to see if they could get him on track. The Pirates didn't do that, and it paid off.
Starting on June 16, 2012 where Alvarez went 2-for-4 with a pair of home runs against Cleveland in the second game of a three game series. From that point on Alvarez raked the rest of the season. In the final 94 days of the season Alvarez hit .274/.352/.518 line with 22 home runs. Granted, his strikeout rate was still really high (113 strikeouts in 381 plate appearances for a 30% rate) but he was collecting more hits. Now for those of us who have watched Alvarez over the course of his brief career knows that these hot streaks happen and that he could be just as bad.
2013 started off slow. Again. In the first 52 games of this season Alvarez hit only .199/.263/.420 with 12 home runs and a strikeout rate of 35%. Again though he turned a corner. Since those first 52 games he is raking at a .331/.386/.678 rate over the last 31 games and while his strikeout rate is still absurdly high (31%) he launched 12 home runs in 132 plate appearances and has been the Pirates best hitter over that span.
Furthermore when you take Alvarez's numbers from around the midpoint of last season (June 16 when he went off) he is hitting .264/.331/.521 with 24 doubles and 46 home runs over 707 plate appearances. It is true that his strikeout rate is high (31%) but that is something I think we all know that is going to be consistent. Over that span he has a .362 wOBA (which is one of my favorite stats) and this season, during this stretch, has looked as comfortable and composed as ever.
So what does all this mean? I wish I could tell you. I think the only thing we truly know is that he is going to strikeout a lot (over 30%) and he is going to be a streaky hitter (see what I said above). I guess when I look at Alvarez I still see a guy who can center this lineup. 2011 was horrible and the start of 2012 was a carryover from that. But something happened in that game against the Indians and since that time he has been a very productive hitter in what amounts to more than a seasons worth of plate appearances.
I am not here to tell you that this is going to be the true guy we are going to see in future years, but here to tell you that this is the kind of guy that he is going to be. He is going to struggle to start the year but if you wait it out he is going to reward you. Last year he was very good over the last 95 game and so far he was bad for just as many games to start the season and is now rebounding just like he did a year ago. I think ideally you would like to see him lay off some more pitches and get his walk rate over 10% but it seems like this is going to be a 40 home run guy that will be around the .250 mark with a 30% strikeout rate. That strikeout rate is going to be the reason that people won't be able to consider him a top tier player but those home runs will get him paid. Big time.
Alvarez is a guy that Pirates fans love to hate. Sure everyone is gushing over him now when he is hot but it just takes a bad six or eight game stretch before people want him back in AAA. He is a guy that fans will never truly like and will be a guy you look back on and think that he is better than what you thought he was, much like Adam LaRoche.
At one point it was thought that he was going to have to be a first baseman and through his first three years there was a good case against that being inevitable. Something funny happened though, he became a really good third baseman. Now I am not saying that he is going to challenge for a gold glove but this year he has really played close to plus defense (if not plus defense outright) and has really transformed how I looked at him defensively.
I think that defensive point really highlights what I think Alvarez is all about. He has always been, and will always be, a streaky player but as long as his good streaks can outweigh his bad streak then this could turn out a lot better than some of us thought halfway through last season. The bad streaks still come but they seem fewer and while he still strikes out a ton I think people need to shed this notion that he doesn't care or doesn't work on his game. I think the last 90+ games of last year and the current 30+ game stretch now proves that and his defense this year absolutely proves that point.
He might not ever live up to his number two overall pick billing but for a guy that is going to hit 30-40 home runs a year and play decent defense at third base I think this is a guy that can be a cog in the middle of the Pirates lineup and a guy you can have a fun time watching as he drops baseballs out of PNC Park. Again, I am not here to tell you who he is or what kind of player he is because that is an impossible question to answer, but I am here to tell you that he has been pretty damn good over the last year and I can appreciate that progression in his game.
The hate for Alvarez will always be there but understanding the ups and downs and appreciating how he has evolved should help stem some of that, if you want it to.