162 games is a long season, and when you're in the midst of one, it can be hard to maintain perspective -- it's like a cross-country drive, where the distance to the coast is so hard to conceptualize that you have a hard time thinking past when your next stop for gas will be. As a fan, it's easy to imagine that every series is momentous and potentially season-changing. And if you're a fan of a particular player, it's equally easy to believe that his last 10 at-bats hold the key to his season.
I can't think of a Pirates player in recent vintage whose streaks and slumps are so convincing as those of Pedro Alvarez. When he's slumping, which, at least to this point in his career, unfortunately has been most of the time, he often looks like he doesn't belong in the majors at all, like even Class AAA pitchers could easily sit him down by throwing him random junk. He has enormous problems recognizing pitches, leading to stretches where he routinely watches fastballs right down the middle when he sees them early in counts, then swings at much worse pitches when he gets behind.
But when he's on, his spectacular power makes concerns about his pitch recognition seem trivial. His amazing four-home-runs-in-two-days outburst against the Cleveland Indians this weekend was a case in point -- once he hit one, you could feel a second one coming on, and once he hit three, well, the fourth seemed almost inevitable.
In the fourth inning on Sunday, Jeanmar Gomez threw a 90-MPH fastball right down the pike, and Alvarez (who'd already smacked two homers Saturday) blasted it into the right-field seats for a three-run shot. He came up the very next inning, and this time Manny Acta went to righty reliever Esmil Rogers. I'm not sure why Acta did that, since the most effective way to slow down a hot Pedro Alvarez is to go with a lefty, but he gave the Pirates a gift. Rogers threw a knee-high, 96-MPH fastball, and Alvarez hit a line drive toward the right-field foul pole. Boom -- it was 9-4, and the game was effectively over. For good measure, though, Alvarez smacked a double in the seventh.
After a day off Monday, would it be a huge shock if Alvarez homered again on Tuesday? Normally, I tend to think that streaks are overrated in baseball, that, at least partially, they're after-the-fact ways of explaining random distributions of events. With Alvarez, though, a hot streak has an inevitable feeling about it. When Alvarez is on, he's a god. He's unstoppable.
In addition to his four home runs this weekend, Alvarez hit five homers and four doubles in a nine-game stretch in late April and early May. That streak had some Pirates fans demanding that Pedro's detractors admit they were wrong for doubting him. Of course, those calls for apologies quickly looked silly as Alvarez vanished yet again, but you can understand the confidence that led people to make them. When Alvarez is on, he's like a combination of Barry Bonds and Zeus. Does Zeus struggle to recognize pitches outside the zone? No, no he does not.
The problem, of course, is that Alvarez's slumps also have a mythic quality, and they tend to last a lot longer than his hot streaks. There's still hope for him going forward, but it's hard to tell how much. He'll probably always strike out too much, and he'll probably always hit for a low average. That doesn't mean he has to bat .207, though -- his batting average on balls in play is currently a very low .239. If he can pull that up a bit, he can probably bat .230 or .240. That's still a frustrating player, but given his power, it's also a valuable one.
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