In March, the Orioles completed their offseason by signing Pedro Alvarez. It was a move that plenty of fans questioned at the time: Does it really make the team better? Does his offense outweigh the negatives of Mark Trumbo's defense in the outfield? Would the money have been better spent on a shot-in-the-dark starter like Tim Lincecum or Kyle Lohse? One question that no one seemed to have was whether or not Alvarez can hit. We knew what we were getting there; despite his flaws, Alvarez would produce at the plate. He would add power to an already powerful lineup. The dingers would blot out the sun.
Instead, Alvarez has stumbled out of the gate. He's hitting .182 with zero home runs, and a .250 slugging percentage. He's been below replacement level (-0.2 WAR). Internet commenters and sports radio callers alike have been calling for the O's to cut their losses, Travis Snider-style, by benching him or even dumping him altogether.
In theory, limiting Alvarez to a platoon DH role seems like a perfect way to use him. He’s always been borderline unplayable against lefties in his career, and he can’t field. In his four full seasons as a Pirate, he’s OPSed .833, .842, .770, and .799 against right-handed pitching. Even in 2014, his worst year of the four, that .245/.330/.440 line against righties was good for a well-above-average 118 wRC+. Alvarez has been a consistently good hitter against right-handed pitching every year of his major league career, so his role in Baltimore should be ideal for getting the most out of his bat.
So, how did we get here? First of all, let's take a step back - Alvarez has 52 plate appearances. That’s barely enough to draw any meaningful conclusions, and certainly not enough to say the signing is a lost cause. Secondly, some of his numbers are actually pretty promising. Alvarez has already walked eight times, which is significantly better than his pace in previous years and the most of any Orioles hitter not named Chris Davis.
It’s easy to look at a low-average, high-HR, high-K hitter like Alvarez and assume he doesn’t walk much, but that really isn’t the case. Alvarez is more like a Mark Reynolds in that regard; he has generally had a surprisingly good walk rate (around 10%). Even if this 15% is just related to sample size, it’s not like he’s out there swinging at everything. Also, his strikeout rate of 21% is lower than it ever has been before. Again, this is probably more of a sample size issue than anything, but at the very least these walk and strikeout rates tell us that his pitch selection and plate discipline don’t seem to be the cause of his struggles.
Instead, it seems like the reason for Alvarez’s slow start is simple: he just hasn’t made good contact when he puts the bat on the ball. According to Fangraphs, his "hard hit" percentage is around 15%, down from 38% last season. His "soft hit" percentage is basically the same (21% vs. 18% last year, equal to a difference of one more soft hit this year), so those hard hits have mostly turned into "medium" contact (64%, vs. 44%). So, why is he suddenly hitting the ball hard half as often? What’s the problem?
The most likely answer to that is "nothing". Since Alvarez has so many walks and strikeouts, we’re talking about 33 batted balls in play, which is an insanely small number. Jarrod Saltalamacchia has hit 29 balls in play this year for the Tigers. He has a 0.0% soft contact rate and a 52% hard contact rate. Kyle Seager has put 64 balls in play and has a .121 BABIP, worst in the league, even though his hard contact percentage is above average at 35%. Albert Pujols has the 7th highest soft contact percentage in baseball after hitting 40 home runs last year. Mark Reynolds has put 34 balls in play and has a .469 BABIP.
If these numbers seem absurd, it’s because they are absurd. They mean absolutely nothing, and you probably know that, so why should we be concerned about a change in Pedro Alvarez’s batted ball profile that amounts to six less hard-hit balls?
Alvarez is in the middle of his prime at 29 years old. He’s avoided any significant injuries. He’s consistently been a good hitter against right-handed pitching, and the Orioles are only using him against right-handed pitching. There’s just no reason to think he’s suddenly a far worse hitter, at least not yet. His 33 batted balls this year show that he can’t hit the ball with authority, but his 1133 batted balls prior to this year show that he can. At this point in the season, I’m going to trust the latter.
There are plenty of valid reasons to dislike the Alvarez signing, such as the fact that it pushed Mark Trumbo into right field, or that it compounds the Orioles’ strikeout problem. At the plate, though, Alvarez will most likely end up being the same guy he was before. Whatever your opinion of the signing was in March, there’s no reason it should be different today.