Finding answers: Alvarez finally piecing together immense talent
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said Pedro Alvarez loves to solve puzzles, which begs the question of whether he will figure out the biggest one of all.
No one knows when or if the pieces eventually will form a rosy picture for the slugging third baseman. But some are coming together. Overcoming a slow start that perpetuated the general unrest present since his arrival in 2010, Alvarez made the National League All-Star team by a vote of fellow players. He will suit up Tuesday at the Mets' Citi Field, about eight miles as the ball flies from his old neighborhood in Manhattan's Inwood section.
“It's obviously an honor to play in the All-Star Game,” he said. “But to be at home, too, puts the icing on the cake.”
It also puts on ice, at least for now, most of the boo birds and other critics who expected the second pick in the 2008 draft to deliver a lot more, a lot sooner. Alvarez, whose two-run homer was big in Friday's 3-2, 11-inning win over the Mets, had 24 home runs (second in the league), 62 RBI, (seventh) and a .525 slugging percentage (ninth) through Friday.
The numbers might be higher if not for his striking out once in every three plate appearances, but Alvarez, who also has improved defensively, is still the major power source for a lineup generally lacking in punch.
“He's definitely a guy that has to concern the opposing manager,” hitting coach Jay Bell said. “When it comes down to who to pitch to, he's got to be thought of a lot.”
Even more impressive than Alvarez's booming shots — his omission from the Home Run Derby ignited a major ruckus before he was added as a replacement — is his recent consistency, a novel concept for a player defined by wild fluctuations at the plate. Alvarez has been a tough out for nearly two months. On May 16, he was hitting .188 with six homers and 18 RBI. Since then, in 46 games through Friday, he had 18 homers, 44 RBI and a 1.038 OPS while raising his average to .253.
“I think it's just knowing what I'm capable of and trusting my abilities,” he said. “When you get a chance to play this game every day and get more repetitions, it kind of becomes easier to access that mindset and that frame of mind when things are going well. I would credit it to playing time, experience and getting repetitions.”
Alvarez is swinging at more pitches, including outside the strike zone. His aggressiveness “has been an ongoing conversation,” Hurdle said, noting Alvarez's past tendency toward 0-2 counts.
“He was overly selective or not aggressive enough,” Hurdle said. “I couldn't put my finger on it. I'd ask him for his input. I'd show him the graphs, how they're getting him out. He loves puzzles, anything he can put together. It's one of the ways we encourage him. Here's the first piece, here's the second piece, here's the third piece. Trust your swing. You don't need the perfect swing to get a good result.”
Bell added another element — preparation.
“He watches a ton of video, and spends as much time as anybody, maybe more than anybody, in the (batting) cage,” he said. “There's no doubt he's gaining more and more knowledge.”
Hurdle, who arrived in 2011, has noted Alvarez's “two years of maturity at the major league level, two years of maturity outside the game,” he said. “Two valuable seasons. Lessons learned. Value doesn't have to come from productivity. Value can come from having something taken away, whether it's an injury or a send-down. He's experienced a lot in two years.”
Pat Murphy, manager of San Diego's Triple-A affiliate in Tucson, Ariz., is a close Alvarez observer who has viewed each of his at-bats. That's because he also happens to be Alvarez's father-in-law.
“It looks like the game has slowed down for him,” Murphy said. “I can see in his face there's a lot more confidence, and the game is quieter for him. That's when his talents come through.”
Alvarez started the year going 2 for 32, reviving the groans and boos and the low-but-distinct hum of “Here we go again.” From the moment Alvarez signed his $6 million bonus contract, many expected him to single-handedly turn things around or at least furnish the catalyst for change.
Alvarez has represented the recent futility of a franchise saddled with a 20-year losing streak, and the hope of better days ahead. Every move in the minors was charted and dissected before he came up in June 2010, and everything he has done since has withstood similar scrutiny. He had a decent rookie year, but suffered through a miserable, injury-marred 2011 season before rebounding in 2012 with 30 homers and 85 RBI.
But he also struck out 180 times, the fifth-highest in the majors, and took more heat for another Pirates collapse. His streakiness was maddening. Though he is 26, Alvarez is really just getting started, still a “work in progress,” as he describes himself. It might seem he has been around forever, but this is only his second full season.
“He's been a lightning bolt from a media standpoint and a fan base standpoint since he's been here,” Hurdle said. “And I'm really proud of how he continues to push forward, show up, work and play.”
Alvarez, low-keyed and introspective, generally shies from publicly discussing the criticism. But it has not been ignored.
“I don't know how many conversations I've had (with fans),” Hurdle said. “ ‘How long do we keep him here?' ‘What about the strikeouts?' I've gotten more questions from a negative standpoint about Pedro Alvarez than any player we have here.”
This is a subject with which Hurdle is intimately, if not painfully, familiar. In Kansas City, he was a highly touted, top draft pick subjected to an onslaught of hype and expectations. For a variety of reasons, things did not work out so well for Hurdle as a player. But he applies that experience to how he relates to players as a manager.
“I went through a lot of the same things,” Hurdle said. “One thing I shared with him is that it's important to seek out people in your life who, when they say, ‘I know what you're feeling,' they know what you're feeling. I said you're very fortunate that you've got one on the other side of the desk, to the certain degree of ‘unlimited potential,' mega-expectations, some days where nothing is good enough.
“I shared with him some of my thoughts, the way I approached things, the way I tried to look for help for things. I told him some things that absolutely did not work for me. I said, ‘I suggest you not try those.' I shared some things I found helpful. I've been in that chair. I've walked in that young man's shoes, as far as the hard part of it.”
Murphy said he is not prone to tears or “showing vulnerability,” but acknowledged that he cried at the announcement of his son-in-law's selection to the NL All-Star team.
“I knew what he has been through, and I know the struggles he's had and how he's internalized them,” Murphy said. “He's never had a pity party. He never said, ‘Why me?' He just shut his mouth and went about his business and broke through to the other side. I couldn't hold back. He struggled and everybody piled on, but he stayed the course.”