Not-so-fun fact! Pedro Alvarez struck out 180 times last season. In baseball history, players have only topped that mark 31 times.
Of course, the actual number of individual players who have topped 180 strikeouts in a season is much smaller. Mark Reynolds, Adam Dunn, and Ryan Howard all appear ahead of Alvarez four times, and Jim Thome (in two seasons in his 30s) and Bobby Bonds appear ahead of Alvarez twice.
It's not surprising that if a player strikes out a lot in one season, he tends to strike out a lot in other seasons too. Which raises a question: What is Alvarez's clearest path to improvement going forward? He was only 25 last season, and it was his first full year in the big leagues. Surely there's a lot of headroom there, right?
Well, maybe. But maybe not. We all know that, when evaluating a player's value to his team in the present, offensive strikeouts don't matter much. But they can help predict a hitter's performance in the future. As we'll see below, some players who post incredibly high strikeout totals early in their careers improve in that area. But most players who manage to improve either are very athletic or draw lots of walks, and Alvarez doesn't have either of those factors going for him.
Alvarez will probably never hit for a good average. He may, like Reynolds and Dunn, have a season or two where he suddenly hits .260. But a sustained period where he hits for a much higher average will likely elude him. That means that, if he's going to provide value, he'll have to walk a thin line, posting an average just high enough to be palatable while for hitting for tons of power.
Let's look at all the player-seasons where a player struck out at least 175 times at age 26 or younger (that is, prior to the archetypal baseball peak at age 27). What we'll see is that young players who post high strikeout totals do improve in that area, but those who improve tend to have broader bases of skills than Alvarez does.
-P- In Mark Reynolds' age 24-26 seasons, he posted three of the five highest strikeout totals in baseball history. He has not hit better than .221 in either of the two seasons since then.
-P- Drew Stubbs struck out 211 times in 2011 at age 26, then batted .211 in a horrible season last year. As one of the few players on this list who's a good defender, he may have a long career anyway, however.
-P- Adam Dunn struck out more than 170 times in his age 22, 24 and 26 seasons, and he narrowly missed doing it in his age 25 season. He's had a long, productive career. Unfortunately, there isn't much evidence, at least not yet, that Alvarez can match it -- Dunn hits for more power, and he also provides lots of value by drawing walks. Dunn's strikeout issues also have not improved as he's aged.
-P- Bobby Bonds struck out 187 times at age 23 and 189 at age 24. He actually did improve his strikeout issues, and he hit for relatively good averages throughout his career (including, oddly, at age 24, when he hit .302 despite all those strikeouts, posting a way-out-of-character .387 BABIP in the process). If Alvarez could have Bobby Bonds' career, that would be fantastic, but Bonds drew far more walks than Alvarez has so far, and since Bonds' highest-strikeout seasons came in 1969 and 1970, they can't be compared very well to today's game.
-P- Danny Espinosa struck out 189 times last year. We can't draw any conclusions from that yet.
-P- Preston Wilson struck out 187 times as a Marlin in 2000, then somehow dropped that total down to 107 the next year, improving from a strikeout percentage of 27.7 to 20.9. In part because he was fast, he still managed to hit for decent averages early in his career, but his strikeout, walk and homer numbers as a 25-year-old look a lot like Alvarez's.
-P- Rob Deer struck out at least 179 times at ages 25 and 26. He improved his strikeout rate slightly the following year, but this is where we don't want Alvarez's career going -- Deer only hit over .210 once after age 27.
-P- Pete Incaviglia whiffed 185 times at age 22. He made modest improvements to his strikeout rate after that, but generally struggled to hit for average and probably peaked somewhere around age 24. Somewhat amusingly, the Tigers later hired him as a minor-league hitting coach.
-P- Cecil Fielder struck out 182 times while hitting 51 home runs in his bizarro age-26 season in 1990. He remained productive for many years after that, reducing his strikeout totals in the process. Like Bobby Bonds, Fielder's plate discipline was much better than Alvarez's. If Bobby Bonds and Prince Fielder are any indication, though, we can expect someone named "Pablo Alvarez" to be lighting up the home run leader boards here in about 30 years.
-P- Ryan Howard struck out 181 times at age 26. His strikeout issues did not improve much after that, although he remained productive until last season, because his power and plate discipline are better than Alvarez's have been.
-P- Austin Jackson whiffed 170 times at age 23 and 181 times at 24 before improving to 134 strikeouts last year, his best in the majors so far. Jackson looks to be in great shape going forward and might end up having a career similar to that of the player for whom he was traded, Curtis Granderson, who just missed this list.
-P- Mike Schmidt struck out 180 times at age 25, just like Alvarez did. Hey, great! Obviously, he improved in that area and went on to a Hall-of-Fame career. Schmidt had also walked at least 100 times in a season by age 25, however.
-P- Richie Sexson struck out 178 times at 26. He managed to hit .271 that season and remained productive through age 31 while reducing his strikeouts and improving his walk rate somewhat. Sexson never really struggled to hit for average until the tail end of his career, though, which makes him an odd comparable for Alvarez.
-P- Jose Canseco struck out 175 times at age 21 before taking a big leap forward at age 23. Unfortunately, he was so young then that it's hard to compare him to Alvarez -- that ship has probably already sailed.
-P- Dave Nicholson struck out 175 times as a 23-year-old. He didn't go on to have a long career, but that was the early 1960s, so I'm not inclined to draw conclusions from it.
I'll stop there, but there are some more interesting players who just missed 175, including Granderson, Bo Jackson, and Matt Kemp. Also, Reggie Jackson struck out 171 times at age 22, and obviously, that didn't prove to be a problem, as his plate discipline took a big leap forward at 23.
This list includes a number of well-known sluggers. Unfortunately, most of the ones who went on to long careers did something more than hit for power -- either they were athletic (Bonds, Wilson, Jackson, Canseco) or they drew significantly more walks than Alvarez has so far (Dunn, Bonds, Fielder, Schmidt). Those skills probably helped those players (well, with the exception of Dunn, who still strikes out like crazy) improve their strikeout rates as they got older.
The players on this list who currently compare best to Alvarez are probably Reynolds, Deer and especially Incaviglia, who aren't exactly success stories. Like Alvarez so far, they didn't hit well for average, and they all struck out at least twice as much as they walked.
For example, Incaviglia struck out 185 times and walked 55 while batting .250 in his rookie season. He was only 22 that year and went straight from college to the majors, skipping over the minor leagues completely. So you might have thought, "Wow, he hit 30 homers as a 22-year-old and never played in the minors -- he has a lot of upside!" Incaviglia never really improved much on those numbers, though, because those sorts of ratios are probably pretty hard to improve upon, particularly if you're not that athletic. Alvarez struck out 180 times and walked 57 last season, while batting .244 and hitting 30 home runs.
It didn't become common for players to strike out 170-plus times until the last decade or so, and there are few enough data points that it's hard to draw firm conclusions. For example, I suggest above that an athletic player may have an easier time alleviating an extreme strikeout problem than an unathletic player, but given the small number of data points, I may be finding a pattern where none exists. Alvarez's career could still go in a variety of directions, many of them good. Right now, though, he looks more like the next Incaviglia than the next Mike Schmidt.