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Pirates seek to tap Alvarez's remaining upside

| Friday, March 7, 2014, 8:42 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez bats against the Twins Friday, March 7, 2014, at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla.

BRADENTON, Fla. — The soaring drive ricocheted off the center-field wall against the Toronto Blue Jays, resulting in a double. The hit was the outcome of just one Pedro Alvarez swing, part of one spring training game. Maybe it meant nothing. Or maybe it was a loud prelude to something big.

Two things have kept the former No. 2 overall pick from fulfilling his potential: struggles against left-handed pitching and troubles with the curve (and every other off-speed pitch). Alvarez hit .180 against left-handed pitching last season. According to Fangraphs.com, Alvarez was below average against changeups, sliders and curveballs as well.

Alvarez's double off the Blue Jays' Mark Buehrle last week was notable in that the pitch was a curveball and it was released from Buehrle's left hand. Alvarez had just eight extra-base hits against lefties last season. As he enters his fifth season in the majors, Alvarez said he is maturing as a hitter.

“It's just kind of knowing what the pitcher has and what his tendencies might be. Trying not to do too much,” Alvarez said of what he has learned. “Just waiting for a pitch that I can work with.”

Getting more out of Alvarez is an important early project for first-year hitting coach Jeff Branson. The Pirates did not add significant offensive help in the offseason. But Branson said he believes Alvarez has considerable upside remaining and has been encouraged by Alvarez's process at the plate.

“The pitch (from Buehrle) was a 2-2 breaking ball. Early on in the sequence, there was a fastball off the plate. It was to see how aggressive he was going to be,” Branson said. “Buehrle is a crafty guy. He is going to add and subtract to his pitches and see how aggressive you are. If you're aggressive, he's going to have you.

“The thing that has pleased me up to this point is the maturation (of Alvarez). He has more awareness of the things going on around him.”

Alvarez broke out last season when he tied for the National League lead with 36 home runs. But he also struck out in 30 percent of his plate appearances and had a baseball-worst swinging strike rate of 16.4 percent. He reached base less than 30 percent of the time. But another left-handed, swing-and-miss slugger had a similar profile to Alvarez's until he became an MVP candidate last year: Baltimore's Chris Davis.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle worked with Davis while hitting coach of the Texas Rangers.

“(Chris Davis) is very good comparison to the type of offensive producer Alvarez has a chance to be,” Hurdle said.

To be Chris Davis 2.0, Alvarez will have to improve pitch selection and better employ the whole field. Alvarez walked and lined out to left field Friday against the Minnesota Twins.

“(Davis) is a guy who also struggled in the beginning of his career,” Alvarez said. “He has continued to work hard and stick at it, and it's paid dividends. … I think we all watch and try to learn from each other.”

Davis improved against off-speed pitches and chased fewer pitches out of the zone in 2013. Hurdle said he believes Alvarez began to show growth late last season with a 1.363 on-base plus slugging percentage in the National League Division Series, which included a game-winning hit against St. Louis Cardinals lefty Kevin Siegrist.

“I think pitch recognition needs to improve,” Hurdle said. “The strikeout number can go down. I think the walk number can go up. He's always going to be a three-digit strikeout guy, but I don't think the number has to be close to 200. I think he can get in the mid 100s.”

If that happens? “Who knows what we got?” Branson said.

Maybe the next Chris Davis.

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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