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Ricescapades: The Ever-Enigmatic Pedro Alvarez

The fantasy star ship of Pedro Alvarez continues to sail away with every strikeout. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
The fantasy star ship of Pedro Alvarez continues to sail away with every strikeout. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
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A couple of weeks ago, on July 6th, to be specific, Pittsburgh Pirate third baseman Pedro Alvarez came up to the plate in the late-innings of a game against the Giants. Alvarez was batting in a key spot, what with his team down by two runs, and he was squaring off against Giants' lefty reliever Javier Lopez. For left-handed hitters like Alvarez, facing Lopez can be quite the unpleasant experience. In ten seasons in the big leagues, Lopez had held lefties to just a .631 career OPS with eight (!) home runs to that point. Basically, if you swung from the left side and faced Lopez, you were an O-U-T. Ever since donning a Giants uniform in July of 2010, Lopez hadn't allowed a home run to anybody, of any handedness. Not one.

Until now. Alvarez took a rip at a fat fastball and launched the ball over the center field wall, completely over the center field bleachers, and into the hedges that separate the back wall at PNC Park from the Allegheny River beyond. It was a moonshot, and it reminded everybody in the ballpark why the Pirates took Alvarez as the second overall pick in the 2008 draft, and why they fought a minor war with agent Scott Boras to retain him. He is the type of hitter, with the type of power, to take a pitch from one of the nastiest lefty specialists the game has ever seen and mash it into the next century. It was the kind of home run that you see only from the most special of players in baseball.

Sadly, Pirate fans haven't been treated to this often enough. For every memorable home run Alvarez has hit, it seems like it has been accompanied by a zillion sad trips back to the dugout. As talented as he is, Alvarez has been a complete puzzle since reaching the majors in 2010. He's mixed flashes of the aforementioned brilliance while simultaneously getting bogged down by an utter inability to make contact. For fantasy keeper leaguers, he's been a source of head-pounding frustration, as he hasn't yet provided a good return for those who undoubtedly used a high pick on him when he became available.

Pedro Alvarez was drafted with star potential in mind. So far he's teased us with spurts of mashing, but stardom has thus far eluded his grasp. After the jump, a look at the enigma that Alvarez has been and the likelihood of him figuring it out and realizing his potential.

Alvarez's professional career got off to an inauspicious start when it was alleged that the Pirates had illegally signed Alvarez after the deadline. Some alleged that this was simply a plot by agent Scott Boras to wring some more cash from the ball club for his client or, worse, land him on the free agent market. Whatever the case, the fiasco threatened to engender J.D. Drew-style ill will toward Alvarez before he'd played a single major league game. Those bad feelings had mostly worn off by the time he hit the major league scene, however. He was greeted well by Pirate fans and, after displaying good power in the minors, was lunged upon by keeper league owners the second he became acquirable.

Two years later, no one really knows what to make of him. Coming into today, Alvarez was hitting .227/.301/.483, with 18 home runs and a whopping 94 strikeouts in 302 plate appearances. While he is actually on pace (yes, the dreaded "on pace") to hit around 32 home runs, that kind of production is more of a fantasy killer than anything else, especially if your league penalizes whiffs. Alvarez has seemingly mastered the Mongo style of hitting: Mongo swing hard. Mongo hit ball far. Mongo swing hard. Mongo miss. Mongo sad. Unfortunately for fantasy owners, Pedro has been sad very often this year.

There are two roads Alvarez's career can go down. The good path is the one where Alvarez finds a way to shorten his swing and make better contact so he can get his batting average out of the .220s. Heck, if Chris Davis can find a way to cut down on the whiffs, then so can Alvarez. The second, darker path, is the one where he keeps wailing away for the fences and sinks into the same unholy sea of strikeouts that swallowed guys like Billy Ashley and Jared Sandberg before him.

Did I mention Jared Sandberg? He just happens to be high on the list of most similar players to Alvarez at this point in his career. Using one of my favorite toys, Baseball Reference's Smiliarity Scores, we can check out whether Alvarez shares any characteristics with any past players who struggled early and turned it around to have a productive career. The answer, sadly, is a resounding no. The only silver lining of any of Alvarez's comparables is Gil Hodges, the Brooklyn Dodger slugger from the 1950's, but he's pretty far down the list.

Even though he doesn't show up on BBRef's list, one player that Alvarez does remind me of a bit is a young Matt Williams. Williams had similar troubles recognizing breaking balls as a youngster and was in danger of flaming out because of an inability to make contact. In fact, if you look at Williams's 1989 season, you'll see it looks strikingly similar, on its face, to what you're seeing from Alvarez this season. Williams, of course, put it all together and became an All-Star third baseman, so fantasy owner have to hope that Alvarez has a similar epiphany in the near future.

I've been a huge fan of Alvarez from the moment he allegedly made a handshake agreement, totally before the deadline, with Pittsburgh four years ago. Maybe I'm just a sucker for left-handed power hitters. Alvarez will have these stretches where he hits 460-foot home runs all over the place, and make fans believe that he's finally turned the corner. Then he'll go two weeks where he looks like he's begging to be sent back to AAA's warm grasp (as I write this, he's finishing up a magical 0-5, three strikeout Coors Field, no less).

His stock is hard to gauge in keeper leagues. He's still young enough (25) to fix his flaws, but his strikeout totals have to have his owners wary. If you're a shrewd owner, he might be a good buy-low, "second draft" player, one who discovers his potential and contributes fantasy value after his first team gives up on him.