Saturday, September 28, 2013

Pedro Alvarez Is Weird

Now, I know you might be a little confused by the subject of the headline. Sure, Pedro might be a little goofy and we really don't get to see much of his personality as he doesn't like to do a ton of interviews and when he does he comes off as a little dry. When we do see some emotion out of him like we did after his monster home run it seems like a big deal because he just never does it. Well, that isn't what I mean about weird.

What I mean is about him as a hitter. Alvarez is a fascinating hitting because when he does something, good or bad, you aren't really surprised. If he goes a month hitting 15 home runs you don't really get too surprised and if he goes a month striking out nearly 40% of his plate appearances you aren't really that surprised. I have written a few pieces about Alvarez on here and the thing I keep coming back to is that nobody has any idea of what kind of hitter he really is and we might never know.

He is never going to be a guy that hits for a high average and he will never be a good on base guy but the return for that is his incredible raw power that will give you 35 home runs a year. This year Alvarez is hitting only .231/.293/.468 and he is striking out over 30% of his plate appearances but he launched his 35th home run last night and has been worth 2.6 wins according to FanGraphs. So, his lack of getting on base and his high strikeouts are bad but they get made up for with home runs and some decent defense this year aided by the defensive shifts.

Really the reason I wrote this article was something I found out last night while I was messing around on FanGraphs. I was looking at random statistics and Alvarez was up to bad and after his home run I was thinking that he really hasn't been doing very well lately despite the home runs. So I went to see what he was doing over the last 30 days and I found that he was hitting .206/.266/.364 and he had a wRC+ of only 80. But that really wasn't what shocked me. What shocked me is that in his last 30 days he was striking out only 21.1% of the time. That is eye popping because as I said above Alvarez is a huge strikeout guy and has yet to have an MLB season where he struck out less than 30.5% of his plate appearances.

It got me thinking, has this ever happened before? I first wondered if he ever had a 30 day stretch with a lower strikeout rate. Now I wasn't going to go through and do all of that research so what I did was go month-by-month and look at his strikeout rate. That isn't exactly 30 day stretches but it is pretty close. Here is what I came up with for his strikeout rate since he came into the league per month:

September '13 - 21.9% (96 PA)
August '13 - 31.9% (116)
July '13 - 29.5% (112)
June '13 - 32.4% (108)
May '13 - 36.4% (77)
March/April '13 - 31.6% (98)
September/October '12 - 28% (125)
August '12 - 32.1% (106)
July '12 - 31.5% (92)
June '12 - 27.1% (96)
May '12 - 31.4% (105)
March/April '12 - 37.1% (62)
September/October '11 - 26.5% (49)
August '11 - 29.3% (31)
July '11 - 38.2% (34)
June '11 - No Plate Appearances
May '11 - 26.8% (41)
March/April '11 - 32% (97)
September/October '10 - 23.1% (121)
August '10 - 36.7% (109)
July '10 - 27.6% (105)
June '10 - 43.1% (51)

So outside of September and October in 2010 this is far and away his best month as a professional in terms of striking out. So, what gives? We all (myself included) talk about the strikeouts when we talk about what kind of hitter that Alvarez can be now and going forward. I think we all are guilty of just assuming that if Alvarez cuts the strikeouts down that he will automatically produce. Sometimes that is not how it works.

I mean just look at this month. He is striking out at a drastically reduced rate and only hitting .218/.281/.391 this month. It is in stark contrast to the last time he saw a huge dip in his strikeouts as he hit .306/.355/.577 back in September/October of 2010. On the other hand high strikeout rates doesn't mean he can't be productive. In June of this season he struck out almost 33% of his plate appearances but hit .309/.380/.680 and in August 12 he struck out 32% of his plate appearances but hit .322/.425/.544.

I wish I had an answer. What seems to be a common theme is that in the months that Alvarez has been productive he has a high BABIP (batting average on balls in play). A lot of people think of BABIP as luck and luck completely. That is not really true as things such as defensive positioning, talent changes, and yes luck come into play. Over his career Alvarez has a BABIP of just at .300 which is right around league average. For this month he is at .250 which isn't horribly low (as his season average is .275 this year) so it might not be as much luck as it is teams shifting a little more this season than past years.

Teams have always really shifted towards Alvarez and he has still had months with BABIP over .350 and that typically happens in his big months. I think wanted to look at the types of balls he is hitting. As I have talked about a lot lately it is much better to hit line drives than anything else and it is better to hit fly balls than ground balls. I will copy and paste this again from FanGraphs but you should probably have this memorized already:

A line drive produces 1.26 runs per out, while fly balls produce 0.13 runs per out and groundballs produce 0.05 runs per out. In other words, batters want to hit lots of line drives and fly balls, while pitchers generally want to cause batters to hit groundballs.

The league average for the ratings are:

Line Drive: 20%
Ground ball: 44%
Fly ball: 36%

So I thought that maybe Alvarez was hitting more ground balls this month and in turn hitting a lot of ground balls into the shift. That really wasn't true as he was at 17.9%/46.3%/35.8% (LD/GB/FB) which is very near his career average of 18.7%/46.6%/35.8%. So it isn't like he is hitting a bunch more ground balls because he is doing what he always has done. Sure it would be nice for him to be at a higher level of line drives but I think eventually some balls are going to find holes.

What is the point of all of this? Pedro Alvarez is weird. He drastically cuts down on his strikeouts and that hasn't immediately turned into a great slash line. While I would be absolutely foolish to suggest that it doesn't give him a much better chance of getting on base and having more productive at bats the fact is that the extra balls he is putting in play are being turned into outs, which is unfortunate. Unfortunate because we always talk about him cutting back his strikings and that will make him a better hitter. I think that the BABIP can regress back to the mean and that will result in a better stat line because over his career he has proven that keeping a BABIP that low would be pretty unsustainable.

It might seem insignificant but for the BABIP to get back to his career average he would have three of those balls turned into outs to be turned into hits. Even if those three hits were singles that would pull his line to .253/.313/.425 which would look a lot better. You would still like it to be better, especially with him putting more balls in play, but I think you get the point.

I guess I am just not sure that Alvarez can hold the low strikeout numbers. The last time he was even close to this low was exactly three years ago so it isn't like this happens all the time. He did pick up a couple of hits last night and if he does get hot he can carry this offense for games at a time and when you are in a one game Wild Card that might be all you need. When you get into a series having a player win a game for you could be the difference in winning the series or not. Here is hoping that Alvarez can keep this up for the month of October and he can be the most dangerous hitter on the team for a stretch like he has before.

I still have no idea what kind of hitter Alvarez is and to be honest I have come to the realization that I never will. I will say that it is nice when he shows that he isn't an automatic strikeout 35% of the time. Still, he is a weird player to try and look at and try to make sense of why things happen.

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