Jul 15

Buc Buc: Get Off Pedro Alvarez’s Back Already

The Pittsburgh Pirates opened up shop in 1882, and in those 132 years Pedro Alvarez owns the top two spots for strikeouts in a season. This fact might surprise some. I don’t know why it would if you watch Pirates games since Alvarez has adopted a unique approach to the three true outcomes by disregarding the walk entirely and swinging for the fences regardless of count, situation, or need, but if it does surprise you, then perhaps you’ve just grown numb to his 14.5% swinging strike percentage over the last three seasons (topped only by Mark Reynolds for worst in the Majors by a third baseman).

I have one task: prove that Alvarez is not a bum. I like this word. It makes me think of Eight Men Out and Alvarez as a modern Buck Weaver, but it’s also not the word used for Alvarez by a friend of mine who is a Pirates fan. “Prove to me Alvarez isn’t a ‘bum,’” he more or less said, challenging me. A world filled with too much Alvarez, Ike Davis, and Jordy Mercer had sent him over the edge, so here we are.

Somewhere in the Middle

I led with Alvarez’s strikeouts since it’s one of the big reasons why so many fans dislike him. Also he’s sort of brutal in the field, which I’ll get to in a bit, but mainly he strikes out a lot and seems indifferent in doing so. There is a case, though, that Alvarez is a perfectly average third basemen and the Pirates could do worse.

In 2012 and 2013, Alvarez recorded seasons of 2.2 and 3.1 fWAR respectively. Also, he has seasons of .335 and .330 wOBA and 112 and 111 wRC+. Looking at the chart below, we can see Alvarez’s numbers compared to his contemporaries:

PA fWAR fWAR Med. PA wOBA wOBA Med. PA wRC+ wRC+ Med.
5.3 6.9 .332 0.344 112 118

Pedro Alvarez’s Offensive Contemporaries 2012-13

Compared to his contemporaries, Alvarez would be below the median in all three of our chosen offensive categories. I chose the median, rather than the mean, because as with any set of data there are outliers, namely the horror shows that were Michael Young (-1.8 fWAR) and Mike Moustakas (83 wRC+ and .297 wOBA) and the awesome that was Miguel Cabrera (.435 wOBA, 178 wRC+, and 14.4 fWAR). Alvarez exists somewhere in between, right above Pablo Sandoval if you’re dying for a comp. In all cases, Alvarez is firmly entrenched in the middle 50% of his contemporaries, just not in the middle.

Things become a bit more interesting if we expand our criteria out to the history of Pirate third basemen. For this measurement I’ll look at individual seasons rather than a two year sample, examining Alvarez’s 2012 and 2013 compared to his Bucco brethren.

Year PA fWAR fWAR Med. PA wOBA wOBA Med. PA wRC+ wRC+ Med.
2012 2.2 2.6 .335 .342 112 105
2013 3.1 .330 111

Pedro Alvarez Compared to Pirates 3B

I should note that I based my search on those third basemen that played enough games to qualify for a batting title. Otherwise, the numbers might be skewed right, and this wouldn’t necessarily provide any worthwhile information. The Pittsburgh organization has had a respectable representation of third basemen over the years from Pie Traynor to Richie Hebner to Bobby Bonilla. Maybe Alvarez doesn’t compare to those three, but he’s a good player that puts up respectable numbers compared to what the franchise has fielded in the past. For a Pirate comparison, his numbers are somewhat similar to Bill Madlock except Madlock had one extremely good season (5.4 fWAR, which oddly enough came in 1982 when he didn’t make the All Star team. That year, Bob Horner assumed the role of 3B that would watch Mike Schmidt start) and Alvarez hasn’t.

Remember, too, that when discussing fWAR, anywhere between 2-3 would be considered a solid starter; for wOBA, .320 is rough guideline for average; and for wRC+, a score of 100 is league average so being 11-12% above league average is firmly within the realm of above average as a starter. Maybe Pirates fans pine for the days before Jose Bautista was traded to the Blue Jays (for Robinzon Diaz no less, ouch), but Alvarez isn’t necessarily the worst option for the Pirates at third base. Please note that I’m not arguing for Alvarez to man third over Josh Harrison (a player of whom I am unashamedly a huge fan), just that Alvarez provides real value at the hot corner and is most assuredly not a bum.

Just for fun, and just because, I’ll expand my criteria out ever further by including the history of all third basemen in Major League history. The same rule applies with the numbers being based upon those qualified . . . you know the drill.

Year PA fWAR fWAR Med. PA wOBA wOBA Med. PA wRC+ wRC+ Med.
2012 2.2 2.5 .335 .338 112 104
2013 3.1 .330 111

Pedro Alvarez Compared to 3B All Time

There you go. If we continually expand our dataset and lower our standards, Alvarez looks better by the table. Other than the numbers dropping marginally, this table looks similar to the one above. Much like with his contemporaries, compared to the history of third-sackers, Alvarez exists somewhere in the middle offensively. If you’d like a comparison, Ken Oberkfell is a pretty good one. Other than the sheer delight it gives me to compare Alvarez to a former Cardinal, the numbers aren’t all that dissimilar. Alvarez hit more home runs in each of his full seasons than Oberkfell hit in his entire career, but Oberkfell got on base a lot more, hit for a higher average, and stole a few bases. Oberkfell also struck out fewer times in his career than Alvarez did in 2012-13 combined.

Is This, Yes It’s a Glove

Alvarez is an interesting case when it comes to defense. If you look at his numbers on baseball-reference, he’s first on the active list in Range Factor / 9 Inning (Putouts + Assists) for third basemen and 29th historically. He’s above such notable defensive wizards like Scott Rolen and Robin Ventura. Does that make him in the same league as those two? No, not really. I bring it up because it struck me as interesting. For the last three years (including ’14) he’s either led or been tied for the MLB lead in errors for all positions, not just third. And if you look at third exclusively, he’s led, and it hasn’t even been close. In ’12 he had eight more errors than his next closest, and in ’13 he was six above the next closest. In both years, in second was Ryan Zimmerman, a player with a reputation for having a solid glove, but Zimmerman’s issues stem from his inability to throw the ball, not catch it.

I’ll move away from errors and assists. These don’t necessarily give us the full picture. If we look at UZR (a number that quantifies how many runs a player saved/lost with their defense) from Fangraphs the picture becomes clearer but not necessarily more promising for Alvarez’s glove work. From 2012 to the present season, Alvarez’s UZR comes in at -15.7. That number looks ugly, accumulated as it is, but since 2012 Alvarez has posted seasons of -9.0, -0.3, and -6.3 UZR. Put nicely, Alvarez oscillates between a poor defender to an ever so slightly below average one. Alvarez is like the anti-Mike Moustakas. He can hit enough to stay in the big leagues, but he can’t field his position that well.

If you’re wondering about the median over that time frame, it’s 2.7 with the mean coming in at 4.45. With the standard deviation set at 19.1, Alvarez’s -15.7 comes in at two deviations from the mean.

In all likelihood, unless Scott Boras forces a team’s hand in 2017 when Alvarez is a free agent, he’s probably destined for first or DH. I can’t see another team signing him to be the full-time 3B, but never underestimate desperation and money.

The Positives

So, what are some of the positive things that Pedro Alvarez brings to the field? First, the most obvious answer is his ability to hit for power and drive in runs. His 81 home runs from 2012 to present are second behind only Cabrera (88 in 2012-13) while his 232 RBIs are third behind Cabrera (276) and Adrian Beltre (245). I know. RBIs aren’t that telling of a statistic, but somebody not named Andrew McCutchen has to drive in runs so why not from a position that’s supposed to do so?

Of the third basemen that have at least accumulated 1000 at-bats since the beginning of 2012, Alvarez’s 82 are well above the median value of 47, and he’s two deviations from the mean. And, since I decided to introduce a silly counting stat such as RBIs into this discussion, the median is 187, and Alvarez just barely passes one deviation from the mean. In other words, he’s not exactly approaching the lofty hitting status of Miguel Cabrera, but there’s always a place for sluggers in the game today. In fact, let’s look at his home runs, RBIs, and ISO by seasonal rank:

Season HRs Rank RBIs Rank ISO Rank
2012 30 21 85 40 tie .223 24 tie
2013 36 3 100 13 tie .240 7
2014 15 25 tie 47 51 tie .175 55

Alvarez Power Output by Season

In relation to Pirates 3B, Alvarez owns the first and fourth best seasons for home runs (12th and 29th for all Pirates position players), and his ISO ranks 2nd and 4th for 3B (28th and 44th overall). Alvarez has hit for power about as well as any Pirates player, especially if you consider their third basemen.

What’s important about Alvarez’s power numbers are that he’s doing it in a park that’s not especially kind to power hitters, but if anything PNC Park favors left handed power more so than righties. If you look at the park factors dating back to 2002, left handed batters have had an easier go of it.

Year Offense HR R/HR L/HR
2013 97 90 88 93
2012 97 90 88 93
2011 97 90 88 93
2010 97 92 90 95
2009 99 94 91 98
2008 99 94 90 101
2007 99 94 91 103
2006 98 93 90 102
2005 99 94 91 101
2004 100 95 94 98
2003 100 95 94 98
2002 100 95 94 98

PNC Park (Park) Effects

For his career, Alvarez has been a fairly consistent hitter at both home and on the road. At home, his wRC+ is 108 while on the road it’s 103. In 2013 he hit much better on the road[i] (126 wRC+ on the road to 95 at home) while in 2012 he feasted at home (118 wRC+ at home to 106 wRC+ on the road).

If you had to point to Alvarez’s biggest weakness, whether it be at home or on the road, it’s his inability to hit left handed pitching. Using traditional stats, Alvarez bats an anemic .200/.273/.327 against left handers to .248/.321/.474 against righties while his wOBA and wRC+ against lefties are .269 (consider awful being .290 and make your own assessments) and 67 (33% below league average) to .342 and 118 against righties. It goes deeper than that, though. Alvarez has failed to adjust to anything other than fastballs in his career so far. Here’s another table to illustrate Alvarez’s batting line by pitch type, courtesy of brooksbaseball.net.

Pitch Type Count HR Avg Slugging ISO
Hard 4724 60 .286 .525 .239
Breaking 2432 20 .168 .300 .133
Offspeed 1373 20 .180 .380 .200

Alvarez Results by Pitch Type

Against fastballs Alvarez hits like he’s Yasiel Puig while against anything moving slowly or with the hint of break he turns into Jordy Mercer. If you’re curious, here are the splits for those same numbers. First, against left-handers.

Pitch Type Count HR Avg Slugging ISO
Hard 1154 9 .262 .433 .171
Breaking 907 5 .125 .213 .088
Offspeed 60 0 .250 .250 .000

Alvarez Results by Pitch Type vs Lefties

And against right-handers:

Pitch Type Count HR Avg Slugging ISO
Hard 3570 51 .293 .554 .261
Breaking 1525 15 .197 .359 .163
Offspeed 1313 20 .178 .384 .206

Alvarez Results by Pitch Type vs Righties

If there wasn’t enough proof already, it’s pretty clear that Alvarez should probably be platooning. Allowing him to hit against a left-hander should be cause for Pirates manager Clint Hurdle to be fired.

Summary

Pedro Alvarez’s game certainly brings with it enough negatives that the thought of not playing him has its appeal. I wouldn’t consider him a bum, as my friend says, and based upon fWAR he’s been a good player the last few seasons, 2014 withstanding. But those negatives. Oh boy. A case can easily be made that Alvarez shouldn’t be allowed near third base, especially against a left handed starter. He does extremely well against right handed starters, though.

Perhaps the Pirates best move would be to play Harrison at third and move Alvarez to first, ridding themselves of the Ike Davis, Gaby Sanchez disaster they currently pencil in each game. Regardless of what the Pirates choose to do, I think a case can be made that Alvarez should remain with the club.

 

[i] This is one of those cases where traditional stats would give you the impression that Alvarez was atrocious at home. His batting line at home was .199/.282/.414 while on the road he batted .264/.310/.527. Make no mistake, Alvarez didn’t exactly evoke memories of Pie Traynor , but he hit 16 home runs at PNC Park.

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