Atlanta, GA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez (24) hits an RBI double in the fifth inning against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE
This is ostensibly a post about Pedro Alvarez, but it'll take a bit to get there. If you don't want to wait, here's the summary: Pedro Alvarez had a horrible start, but he's been hot over the last ten games. You can now resume doing what you were doing on the Internet, possibly looking at video of a cat stuck on a telephone pole with a Doritos bag on its head. But if you're in the mood to indulge me ...
It wasn't too long ago that there was a hubbub about a book called The Bible Code. I'm not stupid enough to get into religion here, but the premise of this book was that there were hidden messages in the Bible. If you're interested, there are several used copies available from sellers on Amazon. They start at 1¢, but maybe you can talk them down.
The idea was that there were words hidden in the Bible that predicted things like the famous Los Angeles Earthquake of 2010. A sample prediction looked like this:
It's a sea of text. And using arbitrary selection methods -- up, down, diagonal, backwards, every other letter, every other letter going backwards and diagonal -- you can find what you want to find. Michael Drosnin found assassinations, earthquakes, and millions of dollars. Critics found similar things in the text of Moby Dick. It's the perfect example of extracting meaning where there might not be meaning.
Spring-training and April stats are The Bible Code of the sports world. You see what you want to see. Your brain tricks you into seeing things you don't want to see. You can circle things that are important to tell a narrative, and you can choose what to ignore. And none of it means anything.
Albert Pujols hit seven home runs in the Cactus League with a .383 batting average, .437 on-base percentage, and an .850 slugging percentage. He walked seven times and struck out twice.
Matt Kemp had as many March strikeouts as anyone in baseball. He struck out 26 times in 65 at-bats, walking twice.
There are dozens of examples on either side of the ledger, so we could keep going. Carlos Pena looked like he'd be a candidate to get released in May; Eric Hosmer looked like he was start an MVP march from the second the season started. But you can put the Kemp and Pujols examples in a locket for next March, when you're freaking out of feeling smug about someone else.
Now there's a month worth of stats for the regular season. No more at-bats against pitchers who will never be on a 40-man roster. It's good to get out of the Bible Code territory, right? Nope. Selected articles from Baseball Nation last year around this time include "Is ____ for real?" articles about Sam Fuld, Chris Narveson, and Brandon McCarthy. Some of the April performances were real; some weren't. We're still in an analytical fog.
Which brings us to Pedro Alvarez (finally). Alvarez had a miserable 2011 season. He had an even worse exhibition season -- 9-for-53 with 22 strikeouts and one walk. Spring stats are mostly meaningless … but there has to be some meaning buried in there, right? As in, if I played in the Cactus League, I'd probably put up a .010/.010/.010 line, with one single coming on a bunt that third baseman Mark Trumbo had to eat. Like, literally ate. It got lodged in his throat somehow, and he had to choose between … well, that's not important. The point is that I'd have miserable spring stats. And it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that spring stats don't mean anything. No, I'm really that terrible at baseball, and the spring stats would suggest as much.
That's where Alvarez was in the spring. He was in broken-player land. And when the season started, he spent the first eight games looking even worse. He had 12 strikeouts and one hit in his first 24 at-bats. If spring and April stats are like The Bible Code, Alvarez's start was like opening a book and reading, "You, Martin Cole of 239 Briar St., will be injured by the guy standing behind you with a crowbar right now. RIGHT NOW." There isn't a lot of ambiguity there. It had to mean something.
Since then for Alvarez: ten games, four home runs, a .314/.368/.771 line, and 11 hits in 35 at-bats. His strikeout rate is around 29 percent, but that's where it was when he was showing exceptional promise in his rookie season. It's not that far off from Ryan Howard's career mark. So if you buy the premise that a hitter can succeed with a high strikeout rate, you can buy that Alvarez can succeed doing what he did in his rookie year.
And I want so badly to write an article about the renaissance of Pedro Alvarez. That's how this whole thing got started. I looked at what Alvarez was doing over the last ten games, and I want so badly for him to succeed that I set out to write a glowing article about his comeback.
But we're still in see-what-you-want-to-see territory with stats. Had Alvarez started the season with that line, you can bet I would have written the story. And I still looked at video from this year, trying to see if there was an angle about Alvarez's success. Turns out that when he was struggling, he wasn't getting a lot of good pitches to hit and he was missing the ones he got. Now it seems like he's getting good pitches to hit, and he's hitting them. That's expert analysis, right there. Teams can e-mail me directly for my schedule of fees.
I'm done trying to figure this guy out for now. He's a book of randomly generated letters. He was supposed to be one of the best amateur talents of the decade. He tore up the minors. He started his career with incredible promise. Then he fell into a hole like few hitters ever have -- the hitters' version of Chuck Knoblauch throwing to first.
Baseball would be better if Alvarez helped the Pirates win. And I want to believe. But we're still in The Bible Code territory with 2012 stats. The good news -- the best news in almost a year -- is that finally, finally, finally we can assign too much meaning to Alvarez's performance in a positive way. That's a year of looking for a sign, any sign, that would suggest an improvement. Now we have it. And we can read too much into it. It might not be the prudent thing, but it sure feels good.
Pedro Alvarez might still be broken. But if you isolate the last ten games, there's a glimmer of hope. That's a glimmer more than there was two weeks ago. And anyone rooting for him can feel free to develop a crackpot theory on this success without fear of looking too bad in a decade. More than any small-sample parsing for any player in the game, you've earned this one. All aboard the Pedro Alvarez bandwagon.