BACK IN THE 1970s when ABC created “Monday Night Football,” the network introduced a lawyer named Howard Cosell to its team of announcers. During the 14 years Howard blustered his way through games, he was often named America’s most popular football announcer. He was also often named America’s least popular football announcer.
Love him. Hate him. Sometimes both … at the same time.
Pittsburgh Pirates fans can identify. Pittsburgh third baseman Pedro Alvarez can amaze with his prestigious blasts out of any part of any ballpark in the major leagues.
But he can also infuriate with his lack of production — especially at the plate — often failing when just making contact could produce a key run — something he absolutely must do, especially as the team’s cleanup hitter.
He’s one of those players gifted with the ability to “carry a team on his back” when the streaky hitter is hot. But he also one of those players weighted down with the consequences of those interminable cold spells — which have happened far too often this year.
Make no mistake about it: The Bucs need Alvarez to be an offensive force — especially when his defensive shortcomings happen with such unacceptable frequency. So removing him from the lineup is difficult; can you justify sitting a player who socked 36 homers and knocked in 100 teammates last year, even with a league-leading 186 strikeouts.
But after Alvarez’s first 42 games this season, manager Clint Hurdle had seen enough. He dropped Alvarez to sixth in the batting order and bluntly explained why.
“The production hasn't matched up with the opportunities,” Hurdle said of his third baseman.
Alvarez drove in 24 runs in the cleanup spot. But 15 of those came on his eight home runs.
Post-Gazette writer/stats guru says that nobody in the National League has seen more runners on base than Alvarez. Of the 162 runners on base when Alvarez came to bat in those 42 games, he drove in 17 of them. Only Toronto’s Edwin Encarnacion saw more mates on base (164), and he drove home 26 of them.
In 42 games, Alvarez drove in a run 10.5 percent of the time, 136th out of 174 major-league regulars. The best? Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera (29.3 percent of the time).
O’Neill also gave the stats for the rest of the Pirates’ semi-regulars, with a minimum overall 72 plate appearances: Russell Martin (20.9 percent), Tony Sanchez (17.9), Andrew McCutchen (16.1), Ike Davis (14.8), Josh Harrison (14.3), Walker (13.3), Travis Snider (12.3), Jose Tabata (11.4), Alvarez (10.5), Starling Marte (10), Gaby Sanchez (9.7) and Jordy Mercer (5.5).
Alvarez drove in 14.8 percent of runners last season. O’Neill says that percentage this year would have added seven more runs for the Pirates’ sluggish offense.
Davis moved into the number four slot, as his May figures made the Alvarez move possible. “[The change is] to provide more consistency through the lineup. It's been seven weeks,” Hurdle said of Alvarez's missed opportunity. “Pedro and I chatted. I just feel it's time, given Ike's work over the last three weeks—and this is not a new situation for him.”
Davis, who has hit .328 in 19 games this month, predominantly batted cleanup with the Mets; in 173 career games in that slot, he hit .240, with 42 homers and 112 RBIs, O’Neill recounted.
“We're not even looking for power [from the position], but the quality of the at-bat,” Hurdle said.” And the Bucs did have success last September with Justin Morneau batting fourth, even though he went homerless with the Pirates.
There is no doubt that Alvarez can do it; he simply hasn’t done it—consistently.
Still, Alvarez will get $20 million minimum from a team in New York City when he becomes a free agent after the 2016 season.
Can the Bucs afford to pay him? Can they afford not to pay him?
He most assuredly poses a dilemma for management as they ponder the future. The have — at most — two and one-half years to decide.
Jim Sankey is a baseball columnist for The Allied News.