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Pedro Alvarez is making adjustments

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Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Many of us, after Pedro Alvarez’s disappointing 2014 season, looked to his plate discipline as a source for potential hope amid an otherwise bleak campaign. Pedro, perhaps hoping to atone for his various defensive misadventures, posted career-best walk and strikeout rates of 10.1 percent and 25.4 percent respectively during 2014. After struggling with poor pitch recognition, it seemed as though the beleaguered slugger might have finally turned a corner.

Unfortunately, these improvements accompanied a drastic decrease in power—his HR/FB percentage and isolated power both cratered, and his average fly ball distance decreased by fourteen feet. This juxtaposition of the ominous and the encouraging led, naturally, to the following line of thinking (quoting nothing but my possibly-irrational internal monologue):

At least his plate discipline improved. Maybe if his power bounces back, combined with his more refined hitting approach, he’ll finally cash in on his potential and turn in a monster season.

To anyone skeptical that this was, in fact, a common sentiment, I submit Peter Gammons’ analysis citing Pedro’s improved plate discipline as a reason for optimism heading into 2015.

All of this would seem to invite a couple questions. Did Pedro’s plate discipline actually improve in 2014? Or, more fundamentally, what changed in 2014? I wrote an article about a month ago tackling this question, and ultimately decided to shelf it—it didn’t feel good to write a completely negative piece, and as you’ll see below, looking at Pedro’s underlying plate discipline from 2014 was enough to quell any optimism one might experience heading into the season.

Let’s start with a graph. Two graphs, actually, plus some explanation. First, Pedro’s career plate discipline data, courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Info Solutions:

The same data, expressed as percentile scores relative to all MLB hitters with 200+ plate appearances in the given year:

If you’re not familiar with the statistics used above, you can find a quick primer here.

Essentially, what we’re viewing is a summary of how Pedro’s swing and contact rates on pitches both inside (Z-Swing %, Z-Contact %) and outside (O-Swing %, O-Contact %) the strike zone have changed over his career. I included the percentile graph to provide context on how Pedro looks relative to the entire population of MLB hitters—otherwise, it can be tough to tell at a glance what, for instance, constitutes a good O-Swing %.

We can see that Pedro is aggressive both on pitches inside and outside the strike zone, and he’s grown more aggressive over the course of his career. He also swings and misses a lot. A lot.

Looking at the graphs, we can make a couple conclusions:

1. Pedro has always had low contact rates, but last year he made slightly more contact on pitches both inside and outside of the strike zone.

2. Pedro did not improve his pitch recognition in 2014—he swung at just as many pitches outside the strike zone as ever, but fewer pitches within the strike zone

If one had no other information than the statements and graphs above, it wouldn’t appear likely that Pedro’s walk rate had improved in 2014. He didn’t improve his ability to lay off pitches outside the strike zone, and higher contact rates by definition lead to non-walk at bats. A decreased strikeout rate makes more sense, although we should take note of how Pedro’s ‘improvement’ in contact rates really constituted a rebound from his low-contact 2013, rather than a new development.

So how did Pedro improve his walk rate?

Well, sometimes it’s not just what you’re doing, it’s the context in which you’re doing it. Let’s take a look at two measures of how pitchers approached Pedro—percentage of fastballs and percentage of pitches in the strike zone.

First, the raw numbers:

The same data, expressed as percentile scores relative to all MLB hitters with 200+ plate appearances in the given year:

A couple months ago, I read this article, which examined the issue of how Pedro was pitched during 2014 through the lens of Fastball %, Zone %, and First Strike % (which I chose not to include above). There’s a pretty simple conclusion, and it’s borne out by the data: Pedro sees fewer hittable pitches than just about any other hitter, and the number has decreased each year he’s been in the league. Which isn’t exactly a huge revelation, if you’ve been watching him regularly.

When the only pitch you can consistently hit is a fastball, but you can hit fastballs into the next zip code, you’re going to see a steady diet of breaking balls. When you have poor plate discipline, there’s not much reason to throw anything near the plate. The onus is on you to adjust.

Of course, a low zone percentage isn’t, in isolation, a bad thing—see below for the players above 200 PA who saw the lowest percentages of pitches in the zone last year:

You have guys known to swing at low-flying clouds (Sandoval, Pierzynski, Baez), guys whose very appearance in the batter’s box can be incontinence-inducing (Harper, Stanton, Ortiz), and a few guys with a foot in both camps (Alvarez, Bruce, Hamilton). Obviously, we’re hoping Pedro can be more like Giancarlo Stanton and less like Javier Baez.

All of this makes for a pretty simple narrative: Pedro’s plate discipline ‘surge’ in 2014 was a mirage, a product not of any evolution on his part, but of pitchers choosing to approach him in a different manner. His improved plate discipline wasn’t sustainable, and we could expect another low-700s OPS.

Perhaps it’s a good thing I never published the findings above, because nothing I would’ve predicted has happened.

Pedro has, thus far, had the best offensive season of his career, hitting .246/.329/.493 and improving his walk and strikeout rates even more. He’s also running a career-high ISO, his fly ball distance has increased by a few feet, and his hard hit rate is up. All’s well in El Toro-land.

But is this another mirage? Or is Pedro’s solid hitting supported by a real increase in pitch recognition? I suppose I could show you all the graphs from above again, adding 2015. But you’re probably graph-ed out, and things would get a bit repetitive. Let’s just look at one table, which summarizes several of the key indicators:

Pedro is chasing less than ever before. He’s been more patient in general. And he’s seen a giant increase in his contact rate, with the corresponding decrease in his swinging strike rate. He’s been more discerning, and when he’s chosen to swing he’s whiffed less frequently. It might be no coincidence, then, that for the first time in his career Pedro’s Zone % has actually increased. When you improve your batting eye, people have to start throwing you the ball in the strike zone more often.

This year’s improvements, unlike last year’s, are supported by the underlying plate discipline data. That’s not to say everything will continue to be peachy. Nor is it a certainty that we’re even measuring actual improvement on Pedro’s part—maybe the numbers simply look better because he’s faced fewer lefties. But at the very least it seems that a small measure of optimism about Pedro’s bat might be justified.

There was a point in time, not all that many years ago, when Pedro was the presumptive face of the franchise. The sailing hasn’t always been smooth, but it’s important to remember that for all the frustration he’s engendered, Pedro’s career has been an unqualified success even relative to his draft position.

It’s not impossible that this will be his last season with the Pirates—his arbitration estimate will be hefty (because DINGERZ), and his sublimely awful defense means that, holistically, it’s tough for him to be a significant asset. But if this is truly the end, it would be nice to see Pedro go out with a bang.

So far, he’s on the right track, defying all of our preconceptions.