Man on Fire: Pirates 3B Pedro Alvarez
All season, Pittsburgh's run towards the best record in the majors (no seriously, look it up) has been punctuated by players that make me take a step back and say, "Wait, that can't be right."
First, it was Francisco Liriano's ridiculous, Yu Darvishesque 34 percent strikeout rate through four starts. (Even after nine starts, he's still at a 26.2 percent strikeout rate and 0.9 percent homerun rate.) Then, it was how Gaby Sanchez, he of the Marlins never reaching potential fame, has posted a 14+ percent walk rate while keeping his homerun rate near four percent. A.J. Burnett, Neil Walker, and Jason Grilli have also had their turns on the "Really?" list.
But one unbelievable star has outshown them all. Pedro Alvarez is having what may not only be the best month of his life, but the best month anybody has had in Pittsburgh since Andrew Carnegie's March 1901 (with a 1.000 money making rating). Alvarez entered June with a .198 batting average, .258 OBP, and a respectable but not spectacular 10 homeruns. Now, here on June 27, he has raised his homerun total by nine (including four in the past week), crept up the batting average charts to .242, and holds a .300 OBP for the first time all season.
What gives? Did this increased output come from nowhere, or did he have the capability all along? And more important for fantasy owners: is it sustainable? We decided to investigate.
How Has He Done It?
Pedro Alvarez has always had the ability to hit homeruns, and anybody who didn't think so hasn't been paying attention to Pirates baseball over the past three seasons. (Not that I'd exactly blame you, but still.)
Even in his 2010 rookie season, Alvarez already demonstrated power with a 4.2 percent homerun rate on 386 plate appearances, hitting 14.8 percent of fly balls out of the ballpark for homeruns. Although a dip occurred with his least plate appearances ever in 2011, that type of natural homerun power is unlikely to go away forever (at least since the MLB cracked down on the Special Bonds Juice, that is). 2012 saw Alvarez with his first-time role as everyday starter, and he responded with a 5.1 percent homerun rate in 586 plate appearances, amassing 30 homeruns total. Of his fly balls, 17.8 percent traveled over the fence.
The power, though, was never the issue. Instead, the issues were that strikeout rate and his penchant for hitting way too many grounders for that power to actually be useful. But while the strikeouts have stayed the same, that inability to hit line drives and fly balls seems to have gone the way of Forbes Field: a relic of the past.
I love the below chart, taken from FanGraphs. This shows how his hitting has changed throughout the season in each of the past three years. His fly ball rate is in blue, while his ground ball rate is in green.
Over the course of the season, and especially recently, Alvarez's penchant for hitting fly balls has skyrocketed, while his line drive rate has also increased slightly. For a guy who has hit homeruns on 16.6 percent of his fly balls for his career and an outrageous 23.5 percent this season, a huge increase total fly balls is positively deadly. It has resulted not only in a higher average (since line drive percentage didn't decrease but grounder percentage did), but a rapidly accelerating rate of homerun hitting.
What to Expect
Given that his previous 30.6 percent strikeout rate from the past three seasons has actually gone up to 33.0 percent, I doubt you're ever going to see the reign of Pedro Alvarez: Contact Hitter. It's simply not in the cards. But with his increased reliance on fly balls and a slight increase in line drive rate, we wouldn't be surprised whatsoever to see his batting average increase even more over the coming days.
Rest of the Season Projections
Over the rest of the season, we see Alvarez's homerun rate decreasing slightly. You can't hit 23.5 percent of fly balls for homeruns forever, even if you're hitting fly balls seemingly every other at-bat. Once that rate regresses closer to his 16.6 percent career HR/FB ratio average, his total homeruns will return back to earth once again as well.
We do, however, see his average rising to .259 over the rest of the season. That's certainly not a number that gets me throwing down my pierogi in joy, but it would still be an increase over his current .242 BA and his .244 BA from last season. Baby steps, here.
All told, we see Alvarez right around the 100th most valuable fantasy 3B the rest of the season, as well as the 15th best player who holds 3B eligibility according to our system. He's 12th among primary third basemen, ahead of Aramis Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval but still behind Chase Headley, Kyle Seager, or Josh Donaldson.
I'm not telling you anything groundbreaking. Alvarez is going to continue to hit homeruns while having a poor average. You knew that. But for anyone expecting a 50 HR man, I suggest you look elsewhere. Pedro Alvarez is due for a slight decline here soon.