One year ago today the Pittsburgh Pirates were 39-71. Yet Pirates fans were all buzzing about this moment from the night before. When Pedro Alvarez launched the walk off shot that gave the Pittsburgh Pirates an 8-7 win against the Colorado Rockies, it provided hope in the middle of a hopeless season.
Ever since he was drafted, Alvarez has been hailed as the future of the Pirates’ franchise. The Pirates have some talented players, such as Jose Tabata, Neil Walker, and a potential star in Andrew McCutchen. However, out of that group, only Alvarez has the potential to be an impact bat. A guy who can win it with one swing. The walk off homer for Alvarez was especially encouraging because it was his third homer in four games. He was starting to look like the franchise player many envisioned him to become. That wouldn’t change over the remainder of the season, as Alvarez hit for a .280/.348/.493 line with nine homers in 207 at-bats in the final two months of the 2010 season.
Fast forward to August 8th, 2011. Things might feel just as bad as they were when the Pirates were 39-71 a year ago. A quick glance at the 54-59 record shows that there’s been a big improvement. A lot of the disappointment today is natural. The Pirates were in first place a few weeks ago. Now they’re on a ten game losing streak, with many worrying that the season is slipping away.
Looking at the difference between this year and last year, there’s one thing that stands out. You could argue that Pirates fans on August 8th, 2010 had more hope than Pirates fans on August 8th, 2011. You could also argue that this is because of Pedro Alvarez. One year ago today, Alvarez was looking like he was starting to heat up. The 2010 season was a lost cause, but if Alvarez could become the player we all hoped he would become, it would give the Pirates a shot going forward. Today the Pirates are on a ten game losing streak, but they still sit at 54-59, which is a huge improvement over last season. However, Alvarez has struggled with a .206/.274/.300 line this year in 180 at-bats.
The 2011 season has been much better than the 2010 season, but when looking forward at the team’s chances of future success, the biggest thing isn’t the team’s record in 2011. The biggest thing is Pedro Alvarez turning in to the player we all hoped he would become. The Pirates aren’t loaded with power hitting prospects. Their offense in the majors has some talent, but they’re young and inconsistent. The pitching staff has had success this year, although as I’ve been pointing out for over a month now, they’ve been pitching over their heads. The Pirates will need to continue to improve in the right direction, and the biggest boost can come from Alvarez.
I talked about Alvarez last week, and how everyone is quick to write him off as a bust. While I don’t think Alvarez is a bust, there are definitely concerns, which Charlie did a great job of pointing out. The biggest concern would be his strikeout total. Alvarez is striking out 34% of the time this year, which is the same rate we saw in 2010. A concern this year is his lack of power, with just three home runs, and a .094 isolated power, down from .205 last year.
I don’t think Alvarez has lost power. However, the contact issues, and his increased ground balls (53% ground ball rate this year) suggest that he’s not squaring up on the ball. The scary thing about that is that it’s not something that can really be measured. You can’t point to a stat and say “if Alvarez makes this adjustment, he will solve his strikeout issues”. It’s pitch recognition. It’s the ability to select the right pitch and drive it, rather than trying to drive any pitch. That’s what makes his struggles this year so scary for Pirates fans. Alvarez is supposed to be the future of the team, but there’s no guarantee that he will correct his issues at the plate. With the lack of power hitting prospects in the minors, the Pirates need Alvarez to succeed. He’s no bust yet, but the mere possibility that he could be a bust, combined with that lack of power in the organization, makes things look as dim as they were one year ago when the team was sitting at 39-71, rather than 54-59.