The Pittsburgh Pirates’ 2014 season is just 17 games old, but it is already quite clear that Pedro Alvarez has become a different hitter. He is showing never before seen patience and a willingness to hit to all fields. The sample size is still small, just 75 plate appearances, but the evidence is mounting that the light has finally clicked on for Pedro. 75 trips to plate does not seem like a lot, but that is a large enough sample for some of the plate discipline numbers to be reliable. K% and Swing% have already stabilized by 75 plate appearances. Batted ball statistics are not reliable at this point, but the early numbers are trending so highly in such a positive direction that it is hard to ignore them. So let’s dig into what is different with El Toro this season thus far:
The new Pedro is showing patience at the plate: If it seems to you that Pedro is chasing a lot less bad pitches out of the zone, you aren’t imagining things. His O-Swing%, the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone swung at, is at a career low 27.4%. That is down from 35.2% last year. That is a significant change. And when he does swing at pitches out of the zone he is making contact with them more frequently (last season 48.7%, this season 54.2%). That indicates that not only is he chasing fewer balls, but he is also chasing fewer balls well out of zone that he has no chance of getting the bat on. All of this has led to a strikeout rate of just 24.0% this season. His career rate is over 30%. Again, that is a big improvement and the sample size is large enough to be reliable.
The new Pedro is willing to drive balls to the opposite field: These numbers are so stark they can’t be ignored regardless of the sample size. In 2013 Pedro hit just 62 balls to the opposite field in 150 games. This year he has already hit 19 balls the opposite way in just 17 games. At the current rate he will more than triple the number of balls he hit the opposite way last season. The Big Bull has already gone yard to the opposite field three times this season. That matches his entire total of opposite field home runs from 2013.
The new Pedro is getting some lift: When I gave my projections for Pedro in the off season I said the key for him to hit 40 homers was to get his fly ball rate above 40%. In the early going he has more than done that. Thus far his FB% stands at 45.7%. Keep in mind that this is a stat that should not yet be considered reliable. It takes 80 balls in play for FB% to stabilize. However, his new willingness to drive the ball the opposite direction should help him sustain an elevated FB%. There is a reason that Pedro sees so many infield shifts. When he pulls the ball it usually stays on the ground. Only 19.5% of the balls he has pulled in his career have been fly balls. But when he goes to the opposite field the numbers are almost completely flipped. Just 19.6% of the balls he has hit to the opposite field in his career have been on the ground. So staying back and driving the ball to the opposite field is paramount for Pedro to get lift on the balls he hits.
I can’t tell you this early in the season that Pedro won’t revert back to the same old Pedro. We still have 90% of the season to go. 17 games is not enough to completely rewrite the book on Pedro. But we have completed a nice chunk of a brand new chapter, and so far I like what has been written. The arrow is pointing up. If Pedro continues with this new approach at the plate, 2014 is going to be a career year for El Toro.