It’s been a difficult first month of the season for the Baltimore Orioles. Heading into action on Sunday, the O’s 7-20 record was the third-worst in MLB. The entire team has struggled at times, but the offense has been the aspect of the club that has really dragged them down. So, it begs the question, why is one of Baltimore’s best hitters not in the lineup every day?
Pedro Alvarez has had a wild major league career. At one point, the former second overall pick from the 2008 draft seemed destined for stardom. Back in 2013, as a 26-year-old, he hit 36 home runs and drove in 100 RBI en route to racking up 2.8 WAR, an All-Star nod and a Silver Slugger award. Unfortunately, he hasn’t come close to replicating that production since.
El Toro first arrived in the Charm City during spring training in 2016. He made the team and served as a semi-regular starter and power bat off of the bench for a team that made the playoffs in the final wild card spot. Over 109 games, Alvarez slashed .249/.322/.504 with 20 doubles, 22 home runs, 1.2 WAR and 118 wRC+.
He came back for more last summer but never really found a spot on the big league team. He spent most of his time in Triple-A Norfolk trying to learn the outfield. Alvarez didn’t have a reputation as much of a defender up to that point, and that wouldn’t change with a position switch. As a September call-up, the slugger hit .313/.353/.438 in 14 games.
Finding no market for his talents this past winter, Alvarez again returned to Baltimore on a one-year, $1 million deal. So far, he has already played in more big league games this season than he did in all of 2017 and has been one of the Orioles top offensive options.
Through 23 games, Alvarez has a batting line of .218/.348/.473 with four home runs, 10 RBI, 125 wRC+, .360 wOBA, .255 ISO and a 0.2 WAR. None of those are really eye-popping numbers, but on a run-starved team like the Orioles they are noteworthy.
The 31-year-old walks more often (16.7 percent) than anyone else on the team. He trails only Manny Machado in home runs, ISO, slugging percentage, wOBA and wRC+. And he is in the top three on the club in a number of other categories.
The argument can be made that there is even room for improvement in Alvarez’s performance so far. Of his batted balls, 20.5 percent have been weak contact. That’s over three points higher than his career average. Because of this, he has just a .229 batting average on balls in play, well below the .291 he has averaged as a big leaguer. One could expect those numbers to improve as the season wears on.
Back to the question at hand: Why isn’t Alvarez an automatic starter every day? It’s an obvious answer. Buck Showalter doesn’t want him to face left-handed pitching.
In his career, the former Pittsburgh Pirate has slashed .206/.272/.339 against southpaws and hit just 19 of his career 158 home runs. So far in 2018, he is 0-for-3 with a walk and two strikeouts against lefties.
When the Orioles are fully healthy, it makes perfect sense to leave Alvarez on the bench. He has a history of struggles in those situations. Danny Valencia is on this team specifically to hit lefties. Mark Trumbo has better numbers. Yada, yada, yada.
The problem is that the Orioles aren’t 100 percent healthy. Jonathan Schoop and Tim Beckham are on the DL. Trumbo is still returning from injury. Chris Davis is a shell of his former self. The lineup has become Machado surrounded by a bunch of guys. Adding a hot-hitting Alvarez at least gives opposing pitchers another bat to approach with caution.
Alvarez is not a world beater, but he is better than the team’s other options. Instead, Showalter has inserted guys like Anthony Santander, Craig Gentry and Joey Rickard into the lineup ahead El Toro just because the opposing pitcher is a lefty. Of course, those three can play some semblance of defense, but shuffling the lineup a bit to put Alvarez at DH wouldn’t be too difficult.
Showalter’s preference to put players in a position to succeed is admirable. It is exactly what a good manager should do. But the team’s current situation doesn’t allow for every player to be put into comfortable scenarios.
If the team’s plan is to try their darnedest to compete, then Alvarez should be in the lineup everyday until better options present themselves. If team management decides that this season is already a lost cause (it probably is) then play the kids for the future to find out what kind of players you have. But this current strategy of rotating fringe veterans in and out of the lineup does no one any good.
*All stats mentioned are from FanGraphs
**Stats were taken prior to the start of games on Sunday, April 29, 2018