Friday, June 21, 2013

Heinous Whiffs, Huge Dingers, Throwing Leather. Or How I Learned to Relax and Love Pedro.

(photo:  Justin K. Aller/Getty Images North America)
He whiffs too much.

He's undisciplined at the plate.

His batting average is too low.

He can't lay off the high heat.

He can't hit a curveball.

He looks bad striking out.

Am I missing any of the routine criticisms of Pirates 3rd baseman, Pedro Alvarez? I'm sure I'm missing some; the Pedro hate seems to be endless. If you're a Pedro hater, I was once like you, more a basher than a hater really, but I was highly skeptical of his ability to ever turn into a proper MLB player. I didn't think he had good pitch recognition and I honestly didn't know if that could be fixed, or even improved, to say nothing of his defensive short-comings. But I've come to a place of peace and tranquility vis-a-vis young Pedro.

You can, too.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the fact that Pedro Alvarez is a streaky hitter.

That is the largest part of the serenity plan, simply accepting that Alvarez is streaky and, here's where it get's tricky, trusting that the dips and valleys are finite and generally followed by hot streaks. You have to believe deep in your soul that no matter how bad he looks whiffing one week, you'll be fist bumping two weeks later watching one majestic homer after another. Putting your faith in this, I will admit, is no small task. It can be done. He may not hit taters and drill doubles into the gap on your timetable, but he most assuredly will do so. Just try to muddle through the lulls and enjoy the highs.

(photo:  Vincent Pugliese/Getty Images North America)
He also, will most assuredly strike out and sometimes look really bad in so doing. Pedro has struck out 84 times in 224 plate appearances this year, which means, if you turn on a Buccos game, you are likely to see Petey whiff. Not to mention that the ratio of SO to ABs is up from last year. [This year, it's one SO per every 2.67 AB; in 2012 it was one SO per every 2.91 AB.]

But Pedro is not alone. Increasing strike out rates are blowing through MLB like swine flu, er, H1N1. Here's ESPN's baseball guru, Tim Kurkjian on the rise in strike outs, league-wide:
The start of this striKeout craze came in 1986-87 when Rob Deer, Pete Incaviglia, Cory Snyder, Bo Jackson and Jim Presley started playing every day. Each strucK out 150 times a year but hit 20 to 30 homers; and as quickly as a Bryce Harper home run leaves the ballpark, it was OK to K. Since then, the striKeout rate has steadily climbed to where it is now: a pace that will make 2013 the biggest striKeout season ever. Through May, the nine biggest striKeout months in history had been the past nine months. In April, there were 15.29 striKeouts per game, five more per game than the average in the 1980s. May (14.98 per game) and the first half of June (15.01) were hardly better. It's an epidemic that, at this pace, has no cure.
Beyond which, the Pirates as a club are strike out machines, ranking behind only the Astros, Braves and Red Sox in sheer numbers.

You can talk to me about the good old days all you want, remind me that the great Ted Williams hit 37 four-baggers in the same season that he hit .403, and that he never struck out more than 64 times in a season. Think about that -- one of the great power hitters of all time struck out on average 50 times  season. Fifty!  Pedro is a good player, but he's no Ted Williams. There has never been another like him and I doubt there ever will be. In this day and age, power hitters strike out. A ton.

Would I like to see Pedro strike out less? Yes. At the very least, I'd like that strike out ratio to climb back to a more respectable 1:3. In the meantime, I'm watching his OPS climb to where it needs to be (by my estimate around .900 and I think it will get there.) There's been a steady increase through the season -- OPS in April? .560. OPS in May? .794. OPS in June (so far)? .979.
(photo:  Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Leaving behind all the sabermetrics for a moment, let's acknowledge that even if you didn't have any numbers in front of you, didn't have access to them, and, in fact, were not even permitted to crunch numbers, you'd have to acknowledge that Pedro is a different hitter in 2013 than he was in 2012 and in 2011. Not hugely different. Not like the difference between, say, 'Breaking Bad,' and 'True Blood'; more like the difference between season one of 'Justifed', which was smart, funny entertainment, and season two, which was smart, funny and entertaining, but which also had more richness and nuance than the first season. [When grappling with tough baseball analogies, always go cable network drama, I say.]

He has become an asset in the field, making some nice picks along the line and using that howitzer of an arm to wing on-target throws to 1st base. This is no small thing. With the starting rotation held together with Clint Hurdle's left over chewing gum, cotton candy and free t-shirts (currently, AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriquez and Jeanmar Gomez are all on the DL), they need all the help they can get manufacturing outs in the field.

Yesterday, the Pirates needed to find a way to split a four-game series with the Reds. If there can be such a thing as a 'must win' game around the solstice, to my mind, this was it. Because of their baggage, 20 years of losing ways, a solid 18 years of being the doormats of the NL, some games are important on a psychic level. The Reds love pushing around the Pirates. They like beating them and they love to intimidate them. Which is why I think it was important for the Bucs to get a split in that little bandbox they call Great American. And nobody came up bigger than Pedro Alvarez.

In a few weeks, he'll hit a mini-slump, Hurdle will have to drop him back down to 6th in the batting order, and everybody will lose their minds. But a few days or weeks after that, he'll snap out of it, start crushing balls, and turning in multiple RBI games. Of that, I have faith.

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