Yesterday I wrote about how the Pittsburgh Pirates have a lot of players who are primed to regress to the mean in a positive manner. Typically when discussing regression, we talk about how someone won’t be able to keep up their strong performances, and will eventually fade. But it’s also possible for players who are struggling to regress to the mean, and improve their current numbers.
That’s the case with a lot of the hitters currently in the lineup, based on their BABIP. If you’re unfamiliar, BABIP stands for batting average per balls in play. It measures the percentage of balls hit into play that drop in for hits when you exclude home runs. For pitchers, the expected rate is .290-.300. For hitters, the rate isn’t limited to .300, but usually a hitter will stay in the same range throughout his career. So if a hitter has a .340 BABIP, that’s not considered lucky because it’s above .300, as long as the hitter has shown a tendency to consistently put up this BABIP over his career.
I talked about Neil Walker being a prime candidate to bounce back yesterday. Today, the focus is on Pedro Alvarez, who is probably the most important person to the success of the Pirates’ lineup.
Alvarez got off to a great start this year, but quickly faded. In his first nine games, he had a 1.027 OPS, and five of his six homers in 35 at-bats. Since that point (starting with the first game of the Brewers sweep), he has a .449 OPS and one home run in 58 at-bats. Correlation doesn’t always mean causation, so that doesn’t mean that the struggles from Alvarez are directly leading to the Pirates’ record. The Pirates have struggled due to a lack of offense, and when your cleanup hitter is performing so poorly, that’s going to be a big part of it.
That’s not to say that Alvarez is the only guy struggling right now. He just happens to be one of the biggest guys struggling, if not the biggest guy struggling. The fact that he is hitting behind McCutchen, and the fact that McCutchen is batting .323 with a 1.016 OPS during this same stretch, makes his struggles worse. It basically means that McCutchen’s only hopes of scoring a run is through a home run. McCutchen has reached base at a .416 clip during this time, but only has nine runs to show for it. Four of those came via home run. He has reached base 28 times during this stretch, not counting home runs, and has only scored five times.
McCutchen can’t do it all, and that’s why Alvarez is so essential. Fortunately, there are signs that Alvarez could regress back to the mean, and improve his numbers. Right now he has a .172/.280/.387 line, but he has a .161 BABIP. That’s down from his career .291 mark.
Yesterday, when I looked at Neil Walker, I noted that his ground balls were about the same, but that his line drives were being replaced with fly balls. It’s the same situation with Alvarez. His line drive rate so far is 11.8%, down from 20.5% last year. His fly ball rate is 47.1%, down from 36.4% last year. Furthermore, he hasn’t been hitting home runs at his normal rate, despite having six home runs already. Alvarez has an 18.8% HR/FB rate, down from 26.3% last year.
The difference in those numbers? With the 2013 numbers, Alvarez should have two more home runs. The difference between his line drive rate last year and this year is just four line drives. So that’s probably not a significant sample size to be concerned with. He has seen a slight increase in ground balls, but again, it’s another small sample size.
There are some very encouraging signs with the approach from Alvarez. He currently has a 23.4% strikeout rate and a 12.1% walk rate. Both of those are by far the best marks in his career. Alvarez has consistently had a strikeout rate of around 30% in the majors, while having a walk rate around 9%. Again, this is very similar to Walker’s situation. The BABIP is down, a few line drives have been replaced with fly balls, the HR/FB rate is down, but there have been improvements in the strikeout area. Walker didn’t have the same improvements with his walk rate that Alvarez is currently showing.
Alvarez has been a bit of a streaky player during his career. When he starts to hit, he catches fire for a long period of time. So seeing him struggle isn’t unusual. That said, he’s not looking as overmatched as he has been in the past, with a decrease in strikeouts and an increase in walks.
If Alvarez had his normal BABIP during the first month of the season, he would have seen an extra eight hits. Taking the same approach I took with Neil Walker yesterday, let’s assume all of those hits are singles. If Alvarez would have had his normal BABIP, he’d currently have a .258 average and an .828 OPS. Keep in mind that several of those expected hits would probably go for extra bases, which means that OPS would be higher.
There is no way that Alvarez will continue with a BABIP this low. Some of those batted balls will eventually start dropping in for hits. The fact that he’s striking out less means that he’ll be putting more balls into play, meaning more potential hits. He’s also doing a better job of reaching base via the walk, which can only help. And he’s hitting for his normal power, although there’s still room for improvement based on the HR/FB ratios.
It might be silly to say this about a guy who currently has a .667 OPS, but Alvarez could be looking at a career year. The hits will come, and if the strikeout and walk rates remain at their current pace, Alvarez could be looking at his first pro season with an OPS over .800.