Will Pedro Alvarez Make It?
If you took a poll today among Pirates’ fans to determine the most disappointing aspect of the team’s performance this season, I believe an overwhelming majority would choose the poor play of Pedro Alvarez. Alvarez was expected to pick up where he left off in September of last year, when he posted a .306 /.377 /.566 line. Needless to say, it didn’t happen. Alvarez has been almost historically inept at the plate this season, displaying awful swing mechanics and a slow bat. Even worse, he appears to be hopelessly confused, and downright miserable – I don’t remember the last time I have seen a player look this uptight and unhappy.
So the debate has already begun – what should the Pirates do with Pedro? Clearly, the most common response has been to wait and hope that he fulfills his potential. The Bucs really have no choice but to see if Alvarez plays himself out of this funk, and because they have one option remaining, they can afford to let him attempt to do that at Indianapolis next season. But what are the chances that Alvarez will turn things around?
Most fans suggest that he will, without offering much support for their opinions, so I decided to spend some time looking at his NCAA and minor league performances to see if I could find some empirical evidence that might quantify Alvarez’s chances of success. The first thing that jumps off the page is his high K% in college, so I did some looking into that subject and came across a piece by Lincoln Hamilton of Project Prospect on the subject of K% among college players, here, which was published, ironically, just prior to the 2008 first year player draft, when Alvarez was selected by the Pirates with the second overall pick.
Hamilton wrote, “More so than any power metric… elite college hitters who don’t strike out much have really good success rates. And really good college hitters who do strike out a lot have dizzying failure rates….guys who strike out more than 13% of the time in college rarely turn into good players, and guys who K% > 19% don’t make the majors.
This does not bode well for uber-prospect Pedro Alvarez…I’m just saying that no college hitter taken in the last seven drafts has been struck out as often and played a big league game. Alvarez is a really unique talent but his statistical profile will make him even more unique if he succeeds – Drew Stubbs was the only player I could find taken in the top 10 who struck out more often in college.
ALVAREZ K% (NCAA, MILB, MLB)
Hamilton’s last two sentences bear restating, and emphasis. He looked at the previous seven first year player drafts and could not find one player with Alvarez’s K% who was successful in the majors. In addition, only one player with a higher K% in college – Drew Stubbs – was even selected in the first ten picks of those seven drafts. And, as anyone who follows the Reds can tell you, Stubbs, who is whiffing at a 30% clip, is teetering on the edge of the cliff.
Our knowledge of baseball continues to move forward, and it is quite possible that no one in organized baseball was aware of or committed to this type of statistical analysis back in 2008. Or perhaps the Pirates were influenced by Alvarez’s reduced K% in an injury-shortened junior year. But regardless, the data is holding up – Jeff Sackmann, in The Hardball Times, wrote this on the subject in 2010, supporting Hamilton’s research.
In light of what we have to come to realize about K% in college, I believe it is reasonable to say that Alvarez is facing an uphill climb if he is to have a successful major league career. Of course, that doesn’t mean he can’t do it – after all, there were huge signs of life the last two months of 2010 – only that the Pirates and their fans can no longer take it to the bank. After all, it is a bit disturbing to look at the numbers and see that Alvarez walked and struck out at almost exactly the same clip during his “good” 2010 as he did last year. Prospects do, in fact, break our hearts.
To end on a positive note, the Pirates’ front office may have learned from history. This year’s third-round pick Alex Dickerson, a top NCAA hitter out of Indiana University, had a steadily improving K% in college, safely within the parameters for future success.