The discussion surrounding Pedro Alvarez in Pittsburgh never seems to be a fully rational one. There are probably a lot of good reasons for this, starting with the fact that he was the first big pick of their rebuilding efforts under Neal Huntington, the first big prospect who was expected to lead the team to being a contender again, and he hasn’t exactly lived up to those expectations.
Alvarez isn’t an MVP candidate, but when he’s on, he isn’t a bad player. The problem is that when he’s on his game, a lot of fans don’t appreciate that game. And when he’s off his game, things get ugly.
To that first point, Alvarez is having a good season this year. After this weekend, he is hitting for a .233/.322/.473 line in 149 at-bats. He has a career high 12.1% walk rate, a career low 24.2% strikeout rate, and his .240 ISO matches his career high, set in 2013. Those numbers represent your classic three-true-outcomes hitter, where most at-bats end in a walk, a strikeout, or a home run.
Yes, if Alvarez keeps this up, then the Pirates basically have Adam Dunn at first base. That makes me wonder why certain arguments keep creeping up this season, under-valuing Alvarez and his future.
First, there’s the demand to rush Josh Bell to Triple-A, and eventually to the majors, all because people are tired of seeing Alvarez as the starting first baseman. This, despite the fact that Alvarez currently ranks fourth on the team in wOBA, wRC+, and ranks third in OPS. Josh Bell is definitely the future at first base, but Alvarez is there right now, and is playing well. At what other position would you see fans calling for the replacement of a player who is producing and under control for this season and the next? And all while rushing a top prospect in order to replace that player.
Then there’s the creative solution of moving Neil Walker to first base next year and trading Alvarez. This is despite the fact that Walker currently has a .688 OPS, and while he has a higher WAR than Alvarez, that’s mostly due to his performance and positioning at second base. Moving him to first would negate the positive value he has going right now, not to mention it would replace a productive hitter with a much more expensive and much less productive hitter.
Granted, the last time I saw the Walker-replacing-Alvarez call was about a week ago, when Alvarez had his numbers lower, and Walker had his numbers higher. Even at that point, Alvarez was ahead on the stats sheet.
There is a legit argument to be made that Alvarez can’t be counted on for consistent production, even if he does have a big year this year. He had similar numbers in 2013, then struggled in 2014. I will point out that he actually increased his walks, decreased his strikeouts, and his power stayed at a good level, although nowhere near the elite level he needs to be at to justify the low average. Still, the offense wasn’t enough to mask the poor defense, which really set the tone for his season, and probably led to a lot of the issues fans have with him today.
This would be a concern, but it’s a concern with every player. It’s also not nearly a guarantee that Alvarez struggles. And considering that he’s in a contract year next year, I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up having another big season like he’s starting to have this year, rather than seeing his numbers slump.
For now, Alvarez is putting up some of the best offense on the team. Any discussion of speeding up Josh Bell’s timeline, or moving Walker to first base next year need to consider that this would currently hurt the Pirates a lot more than it would help.