Andrew McCutchen needs a wingman
Pirates' star center fielder can't do it alone. So who's going to step up?
Maybe it was the euphoria of winning a big series on the road or the result of a cheesesteak-induced buzz, but Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle decided to go all-in with a historical comparison this week in Philadelphia.
The topic du jour: The Pirates' ongoing quest to develop a nucleus of players to take the pressure off Andrew McCutchen, their marquee center fielder, franchise player and resident WAR machine. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez seems like the perfect candidate to fill the bill as McCutchen's trusty sidekick, but first he needs to address his high strikeout totals, low batting average and the challenge of hitting left-handed pitching.
Hurdle is convinced Alvarez has the work ethic and ability to be an All-Star, and he cites as an example a former Philadelphia Phillies third baseman who hit .196 as a rookie before building a Hall of Fame career one home run trot at a time.
"There's a guy the people in Philly almost ran out of town, and then they bowed to him,'' Hurdle said. "I see a lot of similarities between Michael Schmidt's first three years and what Pedro has gone through here. When you have that much raw power, it takes some time to develop the consistency. The hot streaks, they're there. The cold streaks, they're there. With time and experience, Mike Schmidt was able to shorten the cold ones and lengthen the hot ones. We're very optimistic Pedro is going to be able to do that, too.''
A check of the record book reveals that Schmidt led the National League with 36 homers and made his first All-Star team at age 24. But he hit .249 with 180 strikeouts the following year, so there were some stumbles along the way.
The effort to surround McCutchen with a talented supporting cast is one of the most pressing questions that general manager Neal Huntington and his front office team are facing, along with, "When are you going to call up Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon from the minors?'' Gaby Sanchez made an All-Star team in 2011, Russell Martin is a solid veteran catcher and Garrett Jones hit 27 homers last year despite minimal production against lefties. But if the Pirates plan to break the .500 barrier and produce a postseason contender, their aspirations could hinge on four current and former prospects who have to decipher some riddles before maximizing their potential.
Difficult as it might be for Pirates fans to exercise patience after 20 straight losing seasons, the light bulb clicks at different times for young players. Consider Baltimore's Chris Davis, who blossomed as a 30-home run hitter at age 26 and is off to a tremendous start this season. The Texas Rangers knew they were taking a risk when they traded Davis to the Orioles in July 2011. Lo and behold, he sure looks like the real deal.
"The challenge is always to recognize where these guys are in their career path,'' Huntington said. "Everyone expects instant success now, and that's only been heightened with Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. But when you look at most All-Stars, they weren't All-Stars their first or second or even their third season in the big leagues. We have a handful of guys on this team in their 24-26 year-old seasons that are on the right side of their primes. The goal is to help them all reach their potential. The reality is, that's going to be a challenge. We show up every day to help these guys be as good as they can be.''
As every player, manager, coach or front-office person loves to remind us, baseball is a game of adjustments and counter-adjustments, and big leaguers who are malleable, coachable and self-aware enough to adapt stand a far better chance of having successful careers.
Jay Bell, Pittsburgh's new hitting coach, had a weakness for chasing high fastballs early in his career until he learned to be more selective and lay off balls at the letters. Bell eventually made two All-Star teams and amassed almost 2,000 hits over 18 seasons. He credits Chili Davis, a former Kansas City teammate, with teaching him the importance of plate discipline and strike zone management. Like many hitting coaches, Bell stresses carving the plate into manageable chunks rather than trying to digest the entire 17-inch span in one overwhelming bite.
"There's not one person who's ever played this game, including Ted Williams or Barry Bonds, who has ever been able to fully cover the [entire] strike zone,'' Bell said. "As a player, you have to learn to control the at-bat. Control an area of the plate until you have two strikes, and then you expand.''
Some numbers provided by Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Information entering Pittsburgh's weekend series in St. Louis help illuminate the task that awaits Bell and assistant hitting coach Jeff Branson as they try to assist McCutchen's four aspiring wingmen in reaching the next step:
He's a local boy-made-good, a community pillar and a reliable, switch-hitting second baseman who's built a nice résumé for himself at age 27. From 2010-12, Walker ranked fourth among MLB second basemen in RBIs (218), seventh in batting average (.282), eighth in doubles (92), 10th in hits (421) and 12th in homers (38).
Walker's kryptonite is the high strike, especially when he swings from the right side. In at-bats ending with a pitch in the upper third of the zone, he's hitting a career .152 with a .469 OPS right-handed. Almost two-thirds of those pitches have been fastballs. Walker hits .272 with a .907 OPS against high fastballs from the left side.
Marte, a 24-year-old Dominican, has made a positive early impression with his speed, athleticism, energy and superior glove work in left field. His list of admirers includes McCutchen, who has already found that Marte takes a big burden off him in the pasture.
"We pick each other up out there,'' McCutchen said. "We know we don't have to run as hard for balls in the gap. If one person is committed, we know that he can go get it and there's not going to be anything in between. It's gonna be easier on both of us."
Marte has only played 69 big league games, so we're talking about a small sample size, but it's instructive nevertheless. He has a .680 OPS versus righties compared to a 1.077 OPS against lefties. He chases 33 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, well above the MLB average of 26 percent, and that helps account for his high strikeout totals. If Marte is going to develop into a 100-run, 30-steal leadoff man, a solid two-strike approach will have to be part of his evolution.
Baseball America ranked Snider as Toronto's No. 1 prospect in 2009, and the Blue Jays liked him enough to summon him to the big leagues for a look at age 20. But Snider's star gradually dimmed in Toronto, and the Jays shipped him to Pittsburgh for reliever Brad Lincoln at the July 2012 trade deadline. Now he's 25 and looking for a fresh start.
"He's another young player who had some scars,'' Hurdle said. "I think we've been able to help him with some plastic surgery. He's having fun again.''
Snider has a fluid swing and a calm demeanor in the batter's box, but he still has to learn how to turn on the inside fastball. He's hitting .179 against the inside heat since 2009.
Although Snider is homerless in 59 at-bats this season (and has 32 long balls and a .416 slugging percentage in 1,129 big league plate appearances), the Pirates are taking pains not to force the issue. He has seven doubles this season as a result of using the entire field.
"I'm worn out with people asking me, 'Is Travis Snider going to hit with enough power?''' Huntington said. "Travis Snider is a good hitter. If he works counts and gets into fastball counts, he's going to hit with power. When a young hitter tries to hit with power, he's not a very good hitter. It's always a question of, 'What comes first, the chicken or the egg?' The good hitter comes first.''
Alvarez, 26, received a $6 million signing bonus from Pittsburgh out of Vanderbilt as the top pick in the 2008 draft. Bell envisions him as a 40-50 home run guy one day, and Russell Martin said fans are in for a treat if Alvarez ever takes part in a Home Run Derby.
Said Hurdle: "When the man finds his rhythm and timing at the plate, there's not a ballpark he can't shrink and a club that he can't carry.''
Not surprisingly, Alvarez's biggest issues have been against breaking balls on the outer-third of the plate or off the edge -- a malady otherwise known as "Ryan Howard-itis.'' He has a career average of .146 in at-bats ending in those pitches, and it dips to .111 against lefties. More than half of the 150-plus outs in that sample have been strikeouts.
This season, Hurdle has inserted Alvarez's name into the lineup against Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Cliff Lee while sitting him against Wade Miley, Paul Maholm and Cole Hamels. It appears the Pirates will be content to pick their spots. Alvarez homered against lefty reliever Antonio Bastardo on Wednesday and singled twice against Lee the following day, so he's had his moments.
"The only way you get better at hitting lefties is by facing them,'' Martin said. "He's going to go through his peaks and valleys, but the key for him is to keep battling and have the same feeling at the plate whether he's facing a righty or a lefty. Guys make pitches sometimes, and power hitters will strike out. I saw Curtis Granderson strike out a whole bunch in New York. But he still goes up there hacking and keeps the same approach. And if they make a mistake, he makes them pay.''
Alvarez is fortunate to have an empathetic manager in Hurdle, who can relate to the burdens and self-imposed pressure that bonus babies encounter. In 1978, Hurdle appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in a Kansas City Royals uniform next to the headline, "This Year's Phenom.'' As Hurdle's career 32 homers and .259 batting average attest, he knows how it feels to fail.
"I have conversations with Pedro throughout the season, just to be a sounding board,'' Hurdle said. "He has a tremendous desire to be a third baseman -- not a first baseman -- and he works his backside off every day. He hits appropriately. It's not mindless hitting or anxiety hitting, which you'll see young players do when they're not doing well. They hit and they hit because they can't sit in front of their locker and relax. And he's well-spoken and reserved with his thoughts. He thinks things through before he opens his mouth.''
This is the way life works for most young players: Put in the time, quietly learn the league, make the necessary strides and hope you wake up one day and hear people praising your game because you finally "get it.'' That's the task that awaits Alvarez and his fellow Pirates -- grinding it out the old-fashioned way in an instant-gratification, Mike Trout-and-Bryce Harper world.
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