Column: This is on Pedro Alvarez
DEJAN KOVACEVIC, DK ON PITTSBURGH SPORTS
Pedro Alvarez attempts a throw from one knee Sunday in Washington. ó GETTY IMAGES
This is on Pedro Alvarez.
Honestly, Iím tired of tiptoeing around it, tired of hearing and reading every other imaginable excuse for why these dogged, determined and, yes, talented Pirates havenít been able to assume anything more than a short-lived hold on contention this summer. Or, in the context of their current five-game losing streak, why theyíre suddenly in peril of falling out of contention entirely.
Sure, the injuries have hurt, especially those of Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Gerrit Cole. The list of blame could also tally up Francisco Lirianoís customary off-year, Charlie Mortonís relentless losing, Jason Grilliís early blowups, Neal Huntingtonís maddening summer-long denial about his bullpen, all these bench guys even their wives wouldnít recognize, and it could climb all the way up to Bob Nuttingís payroll still being several million shy of acceptable and all the usual suspects.
Devour that list as you will.
But hereís the cold truth once youíre done with the distractions: No single factor has weighed this team down more than that the defending National League home run champion, around whom a lineup and an infield and to some extent an organization have been built, has been an unmitigated bleeping disaster.
Whatís more, itís safe to say that if Alvarez were even a notch or two above the unmitigated-bleeping-disaster level, the entire 2014 season would have a far different feel to it.
Sorry if thatís asking too much.
And sorry, for real, if any of this sounds mean. That isnít the intent.
But good luck disputing it.
At the plate, Alvarez is batting .233 with a .314 on-base percentage, 15 home runs and 51 RBIs. Those last two figures last season were 36 and 100. Itís gotten so bad heís batted eighth, and heís been benched for Jayson Nix and some other journeyman Iíve already forgotten. Itís gotten so bad that, when his team has needed him the most, heís batted a cumulative .206 for July and August.
Whose fault is that?
Hitting coach Jeff Bransonís, even though heís had superlative results with most everyone else?
Hereís what Branson had to say about Alvarezís hitting when I asked if the hitting were related to the far more monstrous issue of all those errant throws: ďI donít think Pedroís brought that with him to the plate. I really donít. What Iíve seen is a player who, last year, went up there knowing what the pitcher was going to pitch him and knowing that heíd attack it. What Iíve seen a lot this year is a player who goes up there trying to guess what the pitcher will throw him, then reacting to his guess. Heís going after his pitch.Ē
That sounds like a confidence issue, so, obviously, it could be related to the throwing. Either way, itís poor performance.
In the field, of course, Alvarez passed the unmitigated disaster road-post many miles ago. He has 25 errors, five more than anyone else in the game, almost entirely because of the wild throwing. This oneís gotten so bad that heíll soon be a first-time-in-his-life first baseman, a move thatís phenomenally rare for a contender in midseason.
The fans of Pittsburgh have responded, admirably, with empathy as it relates to the throwing. Itís hard not to. Iíve felt it myself on so many of those throws, especially in the past month. This matter would appear to be psychological in nature, and as Steve Blass, Chuck Knoblauch, Steve Sax and others have demonstrated, thatís all too real.
But again, letís bring it back to hardcore baseball: All those errors alone have cost the Pirates, what, a half-dozen games?
Funny, but weíll tear apart Tony Watson for his terrible pitch to Adam LaRoche over the weekend in D.C., and weíll call for a new closer after Mark Melancon blows one the next day, but weíll completely forget and forgive that, had the Pirates probably would have beaten the Nationals on Sunday had Alvarez executed the simplest, shortest throw to Russell Martin?
Thatís not fair. And itís not coming to terms with reality. Itís tantamount to saying itís fine for one player to falter time and again but no one else.
None of that sentiment is new, of course. Alvarez has been handled with kid gloves ó some might say coddled ó almost every day since his drafting. There was the long summer of hot negotiations between the Pirates and super-agent Scott Boras, a period in which Alvarez was basically secluded to avoid the media or even hearing about the news. Itís one thing to decline comment. Cole, another Boras client, did that while also speaking freely on any other topic. But Alvarez just disappeared.
There was that time in his rookie year when Huntington quietly put an end to some rather innocent rookie hazing, ostensibly because he was worried how it would affect Alvarez. I was on the daily beat then and can attest that veterans felt it was done for that reason. Similar practices followed as he rose through the minors, where exceptions were made out of concern for his feelings.
This policy is still in effect, as I see it, through the lack of criticism of Alvarez. In fact, when times get really tough, as they are now, the general approach is to not speak about him at all.
And, while again acknowledging empathy on the throwing issue, I canít understand why. The mental part of professional sports is every bit as critical as the physical. Those who fail at it donít last. Simple as that. No lollipop is given on the way out the door.
Alvarez is 27 now, for crying out loud. Heís been in the majors for half a decade.
When, exactly, does that indelible prospect label ever get shed?
McCutchen is 27, too. So is Josh Harrison. So is Sidney Crosby, if you want to stretch beyond the sport. Antonio Brown wonít turn 27 until next year.
Are they also works in progress?
If the coddling, protecting, whatever youíd want to call it havenít worked to this point, couldnít it be realistic that treating him like just any other player might be beneficial?
Hereís what I hope: I hope Alvarez makes his debut at first base tonight at PNC Park against the Braves. Many scouts have felt all along heíd wind up there, anyway, so let it be done. I further hope that Alvarez is put into the cleanup spot, challenged ó and I mean challenged ó to man up and do the job the entire franchise and city is counting on him to do. And from there, I hope he has a clean showing at first, followed by a towering home run to beat Atlanta and be greeted at home by a mob.
But I also hope itís painfully obvious exactly how much scenes like that have been missed.
Some truth tea. I've been saying Pedro is overrated and my opinion hasn't changed.