Pittsburgh Pirates 2013 Season Recap: Third Base

Pedro Alvarez has become one of the best power hitters in the majors, and has improved his defense at third base. (Photo Credit: David Hague)
Pedro Alvarez has become one of the best power hitters in the majors, and has improved his defense at third base. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

When Pedro Alvarez was drafted in 2008, the view was that he would eventually become a power hitting third baseman who would eventually anchor the middle of the lineup with a ton of power. He hasn’t emerged as a star, but Alvarez has provided the power. He’s also answered some questions about whether he can stick at third base, at least in the short-term.

Alvarez finished the 2013 season with a .233/.296/.473 line, along with 36 homers in 614 plate appearances. He was a three true outcomes player, although his 7.8% walk rate wasn’t as high as most three true outcome players. The power was impressive, and gave him a ton of value in the middle of the lineup, even if his 30% strikeout rate was frustrating to watch. Alvarez led all NL third baseman in home runs, and finished second among all MLB third baseman, behind Miguel Cabrera.

Looking beyond third base, Alvarez has emerged as one of the best home run hitters in the majors over the last two seasons. In the last two years, only four players have hit more home runs than Alvarez. Those players are Cabrera (88), Chris Davis (86), Edwin Encarnacion (78), and Adam Dunn (75). Alvarez has 66, which is tied with Adrian Beltre, Alfonso Soriano, and Mark Trumbo during that span.

One big thing about the 2013 season for Alvarez was his defense. For the first time in his career he posted positive defensive value at third base. There were a lot of errors, but there were also a lot of really difficult plays that were made, including the charging, bare-handed grab and throw across the diamond that Alvarez makes on a routine basis. His UZR/150 was -0.4, which ranked tenth among 20 qualified third basemen.

Overall, Alvarez had a 3.1 WAR, which ranked ninth out of 21 qualified third basemen. His numbers would have been higher if he would have been part of a platoon. Alvarez had a .249/.310/.532 line in 467 plate appearances against right-handers, with 33 of his 36 homers. Against lefties he had a .180/.252/.286 line in 147 plate appearances. To put the left-hander line in perspective, Clint Barmes had a .211/.249/.309 line this season, which is better than the numbers Alvarez posted against lefties.

The idea of platooning Alvarez isn’t popular, because people can’t separate his good performances from his bad performances. If you bring up the platoon, the response is usually negative over suggesting the benching of a 36 home run player. In a platoon, Alvarez would still have 33 homers, and you’d still get those other three from the guy hitting lefties. In fact, you’d get more than just those three homers, improving the overall production at third base. As an example, Jordy Mercer only had 89 plate appearances against lefties this year, but hit four homers during that span. If you platoon Alvarez and someone like Mercer, you might get 40 home runs from the third base position, plus an OPS well over .800.

Even though it makes sense, it still might be hard to sell the idea, since most people only look at the overall stat line and don’t look at the splits. If you do look at the splits, then you’ll see that Alvarez is not improving against lefties. There have been plenty of players who would have already been moved to a platoon role at this point in their careers. The Pirates are getting great production from third base about 75% of the time. A platoon could help them improve the production from that position the other 25% of the time.

The Future

The future at third base hasn’t really changed in the last year. In fact, here was my summary in last year’s recap.

The Pirates have Alvarez under team control through the 2016 season. He’s a Scott Boras client, so an extension or a return as a free agent would be unlikely. That means the Pirates have four years to develop a third base prospect, or acquire one through the draft or trade. That’s a lot of time, but it doesn’t feel that way considering the lack of potential options in the minors.

The only thing that has changed from that summary is that the Pirates now have three years to develop a third baseman. They still don’t have any good options in the minors. Eric Wood is the only promising third base prospect, and he didn’t have the best season this year, with a .255/.314/.360 line in 364 at-bats in West Virginia.

The Pirates could get creative and move Wyatt Mathisen to third base. Mathisen is a catcher, but missed a lot of time last year due to a small labrum tear. The injury didn’t require surgery, and it’s hard to say how that will impact his arm strength going forward. Prior to the injury, Mathisen had a strong arm, and has previously played shortstop, so he should be able to handle third. The biggest impact the injury had was that it allowed Reese McGuire and Jin-De Jhang to catch up with Mathisen in West Virginia. The Pirates will either have to hold one of Jhang or Mathisen back in Jamestown, push someone up to Bradenton, or change positions. If they change positions, the best candidate would be Mathisen, and third base would make a lot of sense due to the organizational need.

Even if the Pirates move Mathisen, they don’t have a strong option at third base. The only way they might replace Alvarez internally after the 2016 season is if they draft a third baseman in the first round next year, then watch him ascend to the majors in a year and a half. The timeline is tight for Mathisen as well, since he would have to start hitting immediately in West Virginia next year, move to Bradenton by the end of 2014, get to Indianapolis by the end of 2015, and be ready for the majors after the 2016 season. That’s a lot of developing for a high school player.

At this point, an internal solution at third seems unlikely. Fortunately, the Pirates have improved as a destination for free agents. I don’t think they’ll be able to get Alvarez back, since a third baseman with his power will command a lot on the open market. They might be able to find a legitimate starter if Alvarez goes elsewhere. Or, if there is no free agent available, they could make a trade from the farm system for a replacement. They could also make a trade between now and the end of the 2016 season for a prospect that could eventually take over at third.

Alvarez is still under team control for three more seasons, and the Pirates would be smart to keep him until he becomes a free agent if they remain contenders through that span. It’s probably not time to panic about the future of the position, even if there is a lack of internal options. Their top farm system and their emergence as contenders opens up some possibilities in the future, so that they don’t have to rely on developing a third baseman in the next three seasons.

  • It would depend as always on the return, which in Pedro’s case given the Pirates’ farm system would have to return a MLB ready 3B and a power bat, at either 3B or more likely 1B. Miguel Sano would be nice, but the Twins aren’t likely to be a buyer for Alvarez. The buyer would have to be a team who believes they can sign Alvarez to a long term contract, which limits the field to the big money teams.

    • Two possible trade objectives for the end of 2015 would be Kris Bryant of the Cubs or Joey Gallo from Texas.

  • If there is such a thing as the perfect trade candidate, Pedro has to be it. He will be gone in three years. Regardless. And uniquely for Pirates trade candidates over the last number of years (for NH’s time), he would actually bring a return. He has value, and as seen with the silver slugger award, a perceived hitting value that exceeds the actual. There are teams that crave that and would give a decent package in return. Realistically, that’s the only remaining way for the Pirates to get good talent into the system.

    The only question I see is when to trade him. Do you get more in return if you trade with one year of control left, with two? Each year he stays is a gamble. If he has a good season, his value goes up. If something happens to the power, it really goes down. So when do you trade him?

  • I still think Pedro’s best is yet to come. I think he will put it all together soon and we will see a season of .270 40 HR 120 RBI. He will always strike out a lot and will never be an extreme high average guy but I could even see him hitting 50 HR at some point. I just hope it is with the Pirates!

  • Aside to RSB – excellent observation about the contact Pedro made during the post-season, especially with LHP. Pedro has a tendency to open up early and tries to pull almost everything. This year he started to show some AB’s where he tried to stay closed and hit the ball straight out. That aspect of his game will improve with maturity, and I think that Pedro picked up on the tendencies of Morneau, a highly respected hitter during his days with the Twins from 2005 thru the middle of 2010.

  • I think Alvarez would benefit from several changes:

    Opening his stance, similar to Cutch, against LHP so he can see the ball out of the pitchers hand better as well as just trying to hit opposite field against LHP (like Tony Sanchez is doing hitting to right field with some success) should bring up his average against LHP.

    Also, if the Pirates would place Starling Marte immediately ahead of Alvarez in the batting order Alvarez will see a higher percentage of fastballs versus breaking pitches. The one thing Alvarez has proven is that he can hit a fastball mistake out of the stadium, but breaking balls cause him fits. If the Pirates would use Marte this way I think that the pitchers will be distracted trying to prevent Marte from stealing and that Alvarez will hit another 5 HR / 10 RBI per year resulting in another two to three wins for the year.

    Those two to three wins will be crucial in overcoming the Cards.

    • So Marte 5th and Alvarez 6th? This makes perfect sense but I wonder why it wouldn’t work with Cutch 3rd and Alvarez 4th. I have zero stats to back this up but I feel like Pedro struggled out of the 4 hole. But I definitely wouldn’t be opposed to a Polanco, Walker, Cutch, (say Loney), Marte, Alvarez 1-6. Also does decently with the lefty/righty mix.

      • Does anyone have stats on Pedro’s cleanup vs. 6th hole?

        • Baseball references has splits by lineup spot, but I do not think anything useful could be learned given the sample size.

        • #4 spot – .218, .284 OBP, .453 SLG, 10 HR, 28 RBI, 58 Ks in 179 ABs
          #6 spot – .230, .281 OBP, .436 SLG, 14 HR, 45 RBI, 89 Ks in 243 ABs

          Best numbers posted out of the #5 hole, but only talking about 85 ABs there.

          I agree with one of the posters above re: Pedro’s post-season. Not only the RBIs and HRs, but I thought he had a few quality ABs even against lefties. Hopefully that provides some impetus for next year and a confidence boost.

          • That average really spikes when batting 6th vs. 4th.

          • So that leaves 11HR and 27 RBI in 85 AB from the 5 hole? Over the full season that equates to 65 HR and 161 AB. Maybe we have found Pedro’s new home? I’d still move Marte into 4th to bat ahead of Pedro, even though he’s no natural cleanup hitter.

            • 1 HR in 5 ABs from #3
              6 HR in 85 ABs from #5 (also hit .282 with 16 RBI here – go figure?)
              5 HR in 45 ABs from #7 (hit .200)

              My source was cbssports.com.

      • The lefty/righty mix is always nice, but I don’t want Walker anywhere near the 2 spot. I would rather see him batting 7th or 8th. If he is hot, then maybe bump him to the 2 hole. Marte will stay in the leadoff spot even when Polanco is ready because Hurdle is weird with rookies. Hopefully he slots him in at least the 5 hole, in front of Alveraz. Polanco hits lefties, so no big deal of two lefties back to back. If we sign Loney, I would like to see him in the two spot with his good OBP skills and contact.

        • Walker’s OPB both last year and career is .339 vs. Loney’s .340 lifetime and .348 in 2013. Loney does strike out in 5 or 6% fewer ABs (depending if you look at 2013 or lifetime), but people’s perception of Walker in the #2 hole are funny, especially coming off a down year and comparing him to Loney’s career year of 2013. Also, Walker’s lifetime OPS+ is 112, never being below 108 for a season, while Loney’s is 106, with half of his years below 108, one down at 73.

          And if you only use Walker in the #2 spot against RHP, things are even better.

    • I should say as well that I don’t think that Alvarez will ever post an OBP that would justify him batting cleanup. But as a six hole batter who can drive in 100 runs, who couldn’t be happy with that?

  • Tim:

    I’ve read several times about Hanson moving to 2B if he doesn’t stick at SS.
    What about 3B? If he has the arm, it should be an easier position than SS. No? Not enough pop for 3B?

    • I’ve heard the term crippling a player through a qualifying offer. After the 2016 season (considering he stays around the same level) would a qualifying offer deter someone from signing him or is that not a deterrent given his 35 HR potential every year?

      • Adam LaRoche, maybe Nick Swisher, profile as similar players to Alvarez who where given QO. LaRoche resigned with Nationals after there was not a market for him given teams would have to give up a pick. However if Alvarez continues to produce 30-35 HRs and 2.5-3.5 WAR a QO will depress is market but not destroy it.

        Then again its hard to predict how Alvarez will progress given the magnitude of flaws.

  • Jhonny Peralta… :).

    Seriously though, regarding Mathisen, I think moving Mathisen off the plate is not a great idea. Its one of those positions where you should keep a prospect playing until/unless they prove they can’t handle it, just like short. Even if you end up with a mid/long term need at third, Mathisen as catcher could fetch you a third basemen with an even greater (offensive?) upside. The only question, is where do you put them all? Jhang, Mathisen and McGuire are all guys that should be in West Virginia next year; none of them are ready for Bradenton.

  • Let’s not forget his post season was a huge success. He was a stud when the bright lights came on. Hail Pedro. Who knows his post season success could propel him into next year

  • I was never a big Alvarez fan before , but that changed this year. I thought he had a very good season. One thing the article did not mention about him was that I think I saw such a great improvement in his attitude. It seems he has matured and become a true professional. I’d just like to shake his hand and say, “thank you.”