Pedro Alvarez isn't the only excellent college hitter to struggle mightily his first few years in the Majors. There have been dozens more, and while many have flamed out, none pose a better hopeful comparison to Alvarez's career trajectory than Alex Gordon, the Kansas City Royals' left fielder.
Charlie wrote about this comparison in 2009 and, as it turns out, perfectly portended Alvarez's current predicament:
It appears Gordon could have used more time in the minors, and we'd do well to consider that with Alvarez. His stint at Lynchburg raised plenty of questions about his ability to control the strike zone, but his play so far as Class AA Altoona (.326/.411/.560) closely resembles Gordon's Class AA line. The Pirates seem likely to resist the temptation to promote Alvarez straight to the majors next year, and I think they're right to do that. Gordon's example shows the potential hazards in moving a player like Alvarez up too quickly, and Alvarez could probably stand to have at least a couple months at Class AAA before he's called up.
He wasn't just spitballing something, either. Alvarez and Gordon are remarkably similar cases. Their career Fangraphs and B-Ref pages look a lot alike, everywhere from BABIP (.010 difference) to walk rate (0.6% difference.). Aside from their batted ball rates, their profiles look too much alike to ignore. Even their timelines are the same; Gordon was born almost exactly three years before Alvarez, and he debuted in the Majors around three years and two months before Alvarez.
Both were second overall picks who signed huge bonuses, Gordon coming from Nebraska and Alvarez from Vanderbilt. Both were third basemen who fielded their positions poorly. Both had huge power potential, and while they had some contact concerns (Alvarez moreso than Gordon), they had the plate patience and swings to post solid OBPs in the big leagues. Gordon came three years before Alvarez, being drafted in 2005.
In Gordon's first year in the minors, at AA, he hit .325/.427/.588, for an OPS of 1.016 in the hitter-friendly Texas League. In Alvarez's first pro season, which he split between high A and AA, he hit .288/.278/.535 for a .914 OPS in the much less hitter-friendly Carolina and Eastern Leagues.
When Gordon debuted in Kansas City after his one minor league season, he wasn't good, but he wasn't terrible. In a full season, he had a 90 OPS+, but UZR rated him surprisingly well to give him an overall fWAR of 2.1. Alvarez put up worse defensive numbers but a better 112 OPS+ in his rookie season, coming out to 1.7 fWAR in 95 games. Gordon's rookie season was odd, because he didn't turn out to be a good third baseman, but did become a good hitter.
As a rookie three years later, Alvarez struck out too much and didn't field third base well, and Gordon didn't hit well, but also didn't hit horribly. They each had relatively lukewarm rookie seasons, but optimism still abounded for their futures.
Gordon, in his sophomore year, improved his bat (109 OPS+) and saw his fielding at third base tank, which led to an overall improvement of about a half a win, to 2.5 WAR, in two fewer weeks worth of games than he played as a rookie.
After Gordon's third season, though, and in Pedro's second, they both collapsed. Gordon posted mid-80's OPS+ numbers that season, and Alvarez has been even worse this season, with a putrid 54. Gordon was a negative fielder at third base by 2.5 runs, which is a little better than Alvarez's likely -4 for this season. Gordon was slightly better, but he still played at almost exactly replacement level during that season and the one that followed. Alvarez hasn't even done that this year.
After Gordon logged his worst season ever in 2009, the Royals demoted him for much of 2010. He crushed the minors, and when he came back this season, he was fully a left fielder. He's rated as a plus-plus defender in his new position, and his bat has finally come around, too. Whether his experience helped him or he adjusted in the minor leagues, I'm not sure. But something clicked, because he's got a 137 OPS+ this season and is one of the better players in baseball.
The season Gordon's having is what we all want Alvarez to eventually reach, all the way down to Alvarez's very likely future positional switch to first base. Like Gordon, Pedro's a bad fielder at third. Like Gordon, Alvarez has struggled big-time after a solid rookie season and very, very quick ascent through the minors.
Really, the most glaring difference between the two is that Gordon's already rebounded after hitting a nadir. Pedro hasn't gotten there yet, but players like Gordon (who were really, really bad for two seasons) represent a significant source of hope for what he could ultimately be.