I’ve seen several comments in the last few weeks asking whether I’m concerned over the slow start so far by Pittsburgh Pirates top prospect Pedro Alvarez. After tonight’s game, Alvarez is hitting for a .222 average in 81 at-bats at the AAA level, with 23 strikeouts. I’ve mentioned several times that I think Alvarez will have a big impact on the major league team this year, which would seem strange just looking at his average and strikeouts. Here is why I’m not worried about either number.
The most important thing is that this is the AAA debut for Alvarez. He’s only played 21 games. Let’s look at his numbers at each level in his first 21 games:
AAA: .222/.300/.395, 4 HR, 23:8 K/BB ratio in 81 AB
AA: .278/.314/.532, 5 HR, 26:5 K/BB ratio in 79 AB
A+: .219/.341/.397, 4 HR, 22:15 K/BB ratio in 73 AB
First of all, batting average isn’t something I put much weight on. I care more about on-base percentage and slugging percentage. So let’s remove batting average from the mix and compare the levels, stat by stat.
OBP - Alvarez was low in this area at the AA and AAA levels. He was strong in high-A, although that might have been because he was being pitched around due to his talent level.
SLG - Alvarez so far is matching his high-A levels from the start of 2009. Alvarez was on fire in AA in this regard, but it should be noted that his slugging percentage after ten games was just .378.
AB/HR - Alvarez had a 20.25 AB/HR ratio at the AAA level. He had an 18.25 AB/HR ratio in high-A. In AA it was 15.8, leading to the higher slugging rate.
K% - Alvarez had a 30.1% strikeout ratio in his start at the high-A level. He went up to 32.9% in AA. Despite his poor strikeout numbers, he’s actually looking better through 21 games in AAA, with a 28.4% ratio.
BB% - Alvarez started off strong in high-A, with a 16.5% walk ratio. Again, that was probably because he was being pitched around. He dropped off big time in AA, with a 5.8% walk ratio. So far this year he’s got a 9.9% walk ratio.
Now the big question is, how did Alvarez do after his first 21 games at each level last year?
OBP - Alvarez had a .342 rate in high-A, which was consistent with his start. He jumped to .473 in AA, up from .314.
SLG - Alvarez had a .524 rate in high-A, following a poor .397 rate to start the season. Despite having a .532 rate to start the AA campaign, Alvarez improved in the later games, with a .621 slugging percentage after his first 21 games.
AB/HR - Alvarez had a 17.0 AB/HR ratio with Lynchburg, and a 17.5 AB/HR ratio with Altoona after the first 21 games. That’s a slight improvement in Lynchburg, and a bit of a downfall in Altoona from the numbers put up to start the season.
K% - Alvarez had a 28.2% rate in high-A, a slight improvement from his 30.1% rate to start the season. Alvarez really improved in AA, going from 32.9% in his first 21 games to 22.1% in the rest of the season.
BB% - Alvarez dropped to 11.4% the rest of the season in Lynchburg, although it’s hard to maintain a 16.5% walk ratio. Yet, in Altoona, Alvarez went from a 5.8% walk ratio at the start of the season to a 17.2% walk ratio the rest of the season.
So why am I not worried? Alvarez has shown a trend of starting off slow at each level. After his initiation to the level, his walk ratio, strikeout ratio, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage have all been at good levels. So far Alvarez has a better walk ratio and a better strikeout ratio compared to his AA start. I view him as a three true outcomes hitter, which means he’s most likely to either hit a home run, walk, or strikeout. As long as he’s hitting homers at a good rate, and drawing a large amount of walks, the strikeouts don’t matter to me.
As for that batting average, if he’s walking and hitting homers, his OPS will spike. That’s not the case right now, but history has shown that Alvarez saw a spike in OPS after his initial 21 games in his previous levels. That obviously doesn’t guarantee that he will see the same spike in AAA, and it doesn’t mean that 21 games is the special number. It could be 22 games, or like we saw in Altoona, it could be 10 games (well, obviously not 10 games now). So if you’re wondering why I’m not worried about Alvarez, it’s because I’m confident that this is just growing pains from being introduced to a new level, just like we’ve seen before.
As for the major league level, I feel that Alvarez will struggle when he first arrives. The question is, for how long? I could see him hitting his stride once July rolls around, which would be in line with his trend of struggling the first month he’s in a new level. As for the struggles themselves, I don’t think Alvarez will be useless if he’s not playing up to his potential right away. He’ll still be productive, just maybe not the masher we expect him to be, at least right away.