When players struggle in the early part of the season, our primary instinct is to shake it off and to say, "No big deal. Small sample size. He'll break out of it." There are plenty of times when that axiom holds true, because our sample size is only a small sample size in the context of the current season and we know that. Neil Walker might not ever become an All-Star second baseman, but he won't finish 2012 with a .372 OPS. It won't happen and we know it won't because we've seen enough from Walker in the past to not be that worried about him. Same goes for Jose Tabata; the kid might not ever be a big league standout, but he won't hit .133/.161/.133 for the season. It just won't happen and we know because we've seen enough of him to be sure.
That sort of context works both ways, though. If you have a player on your team that struck out 119 times in 386 plate appearances as a rookie, 80 times in 262 PAs in his second year, and has started the season out with 12 strikeouts in 19 plate appearances this year, the only possible reason you might not be worried about that player is that you're lying to yourself. Pedro Alvarez won't finish 2012 with a 63% strikeout rate unless the Pirates demote him tomorrow and if they keep on trotting him out every other day he'll eventually bring his -30 OPS+ up, but there's something very seriously wrong with him right now. It's not a new problem, either, as Mark at Bucs Dugout pointed out over the weekend. Through 175 career Major League games, it's not over-reacting to say that based on what we've seen from his early career, Pedro Alvarez strikes out too much to be a successful big league hitter.
Do not blow that statement out of proportion. Pedro Alvarez is still a young guy at 25. He's still got a swing that can look really pretty at times and a metric ton of power. I still think he can be a successful big league power hitter. Certainly, talented players have fought their way through strikeout problems to become good big league power hitters in the past. The questions that currently worries me, though, are these: 1.) Can the Pirates figure out what's wrong with Alvarez? and 2.) Can they help him recreate himself?
Lately, when people ask me about Alvarez or when I write about him, my mantra has been that I don't know what's wrong with him and that I don't know how to fix it. It's true; Alvarez's problem is complex and multi-faceted. It's not as easy as charting Charlie Morton's pitch selection against left-handed hitters. It's not as easy as comparing Andrew McCutchen's career rate stats and saying that there's room for a breakout this year. Alvarez's mental approach to almost every single at-bat is bad and his swing is inconsistent (look at his swing now compared to the toe-tapping he was doing in camp) and it's just beyond what I feel comfortable guessing about since I haven't seen him in person since last spring trianing. My default position in the spring was that the Pirates see him every day and that they're working with him and that in general, this front office knows what they're doing and so I would defer to their opinion with Alvarez, at least for a while, because it must be more informed than my own.
I know we're only nine games into the season now, but I'm much less sure of that. I certainly understand the logic that drives their current approach -- that Alvarez needs to face high quality pitching and figure out how to deal with it and that he won't be able to do that in Triple-A -- but how anyone could be learning from what Alvarez is doing right now is beyond me. Maybe he'll turn things around and start at least making contact in the next week or so and my opinion will change again, but he'd need to cut his strikeout rate by well more than half for me to start feeling comfortable about him being in the big leagues right now.
The reality is that the Pirates burned through Alvarez's three options quickly enough (this is the danger of signing draft picks to big league deals) that they can get a fourth option for him either this year or next year, but not both years. If you're of the opinion that Alvarez will be demoted at some point in the 2012 season -- something that's maybe not a given but that's hard to escape based on his performance this year and in the first two years with the Pirates -- then you also have to come to the conclusion that the longer Alvarez stays with the Pirates right now, the less chance the team has of making use of that option. If Alvarez does need to go to Triple-A, how long would he need there? Two months? Three? Five? Does anyone actually know? What's the break even point that instead of being demoted, he goes on the 60-day DL with an oblique injury and then we waste all of last year, this year and next year figuring out if the team can get this guy to hit?
I don't know the answer to these questions. My concern is that the Pirates don't know, either.
I share the concern that the Pirates don't know what they're doing with Alvarez, and I don't think all the fiddling with toe taps and whatever is helping him. Here's one man's uninformed take:
1) First of all, get him the hell off third base. He's never going to be a good third baseman, and he's not going to get more mobile as he gets older. He's having enough trouble doing the things he's supposed to be good at, and good organizations don't ask people to do the things they're not good at on a long-term basis.
2) Garrett Jones is a nice player, but he's a rich man's Sid Bream-- as part of a platoon solution for a contender, he's a hell of an asset, but he's not going to be the everyday first baseman for a contender, and that includes the Pirates when they are finally going to be in a pennant race. Find a trade partner for him, thank him for his contributions, give Pedro a first baseman's glove, and bring back Evans or Hague to spell him against the tough left-handers.
3) Look, Pedro's not that young. He's 25, and there are a lot of guys his age who have already established themselves as productive regulars--he's two-plus years older than Giancarlo Stanton, Freddie Freeman, and Jason Heyward. Hell, he's a couple of months older than Jay Bruce. At this stage, I would argue that if Pedro Alvarez is going to be a successful major league player, it's going to be as a first baseman, and he's at an age where the Pirates should use the opportunity they have as non-contenders by seeing if he's that guy, and playing him everyday at first base. We know what Garrett Jones is. We need to know what Alvarez will be.