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Amid August slump, Pirates try to shake it up with struggling Alvarez

Amid August slump, Pirates try to shake it up with struggling Alvarez Photo:

On Monday night, the Pirates unveiled a new look, with Pedro Alvarez making his professional debut at first base. Necessitated by the 27-year-old third baseman's ongoing throwing problems, the move didn't help the slumping Bucs avoid their sixth straight loss, a 7-3 defeat at the hands of the Braves. But the good news is that Andrew McCutchen should be activated from the disabled list in time for Tuesday night’s game.

Alvarez was hardly to blame for the defeat in a game where starter Vance Worley surrendered homers to the first two hitters he faced — Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons — amid a six-run first inning. He made a total of seven putouts without an error, though his inexperience showed on two plays. In the fourth inning, Heyward hit a chopper to the right side of the infield that Alvarez cut off several feet in front of second baseman Neil Walker, who in all likelihood would not have been able to make a play on the fleet-footed Heyward had he gotten the ball. Alvarez scooped the ball and made an underhanded toss to Worley, who was late to the bag and had to reach back for a throw that was a bit short; the play was scored a hit. In the sixth, Emilio Bonifacio hit a grounder to shortstop Josh Harrison, who threw wide to first toward the home plate side. Alvarez stretched, but was unable to come up with the throw, which nearly hit Bonifacio; Harrison was charged with the error. A more experienced first baseman might have made either or both plays, but as it was, neither figured in the scoring.

Alvarez's move off the hot corner was necessitated by his persistent inability to make routine throws from third base. He's made 25 errors this year, of which 24 have been on throws; prior to this year, he had never made more than 16 such errors in a season. Never a standout with the leather — through 2013, he was 23 runs below average at the position according to Defensive Runs Saved, and 15 below average according to Ultimate Zone Rating — his inaccuracy has cost the team anywhere from six (DRS) to 14 (UZR) runs this season.

Alvarez's problems, informally diagnosed as “the yips,” have conjured up unpleasant reminders of similarly plagued infielders such as Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch, as well as former pitchers Steve Blass and Rick Ankiel. The issue is mental rather than physical, with the beleaguered third baseman unable to pinpoint exactly what's going wrong. As he told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Travis Sawchik last week, "If I could (identify the problem), it wouldn't be an issue.”

Sawchik noted that Alvarez's total of throwing errors is the highest since at least 2002, as far back as FanGraphs' splits (driven by Baseball Info Solutions' data) go, adding:

Alvarez ranks seventh among third basemen in converting his most difficult chances into outs, which are defined by Baseball Info Solutions as plays that are made fewer than 10 percent of the time. He ranks last among third basemen in converting his easiest 10 percent of chances.

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As problematic as his woes have been, Alvarez is at least on a team with the flexibility to try something different. Of course, one of manager Clint Hurdle's options has been to sit the former second overall pick, who has manned third since mid-June of 2010, though not without requiring a minor league refresher course the following year due to his offensive struggles. Where Alvarez started 89 of the team's first 96 games, he started just nine of their next 18 — two of them at DH — leading into Monday night, with Brent Morel, Jayson Nix and Harrison seeing the balance of duty at third. Career fringe players Morel and Nix are a combined 7-for-55 at the plate for Pittsburgh, but the versatile Harrison has shown himself as capable of playing there as anywhere else. He's started a total of 21 games at third to go with 23 in rightfield, 21 in leftfield, 13 at second and four — the last four, in place of banged-up starter Jordy Mercer — at short.

With the platoon of lefty Ike Davis (.240/.352/.371) and righty Gaby Sanchez (.231/.297/.399) failing to distinguish themselves at first base, the Pirates began entertaining the possibility of moving Alvarez across the diamond earlier this month, though he had never played the position before at any professional level. Alvarez was receptive to the move, but had less than two weeks of experience taking grounders at first before his debut. A minor league assignment to get him up to speed under lower-pressure conditions was out of the question given that he's out of options.

Via MLB.com's Stephen Pianovich, Alvarez described himself as "pretty comfortable" at the new position, adding, "The first time out there, it takes some getting used to... It's a different angle, it's a different point of view and different responsibilities come with the position. It's just foreign."

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Hurdle was unwilling to air his player out based on the small sample size. Again via Pianovich: "I don't want to start critiquing him after one game... We'll just get with him and share our thoughts with him."

One problem for the Pirates is that Alvarez's offense hasn't been much better than the Davis/Sanchez platoon. He's hitting .230/.311/.387 with 15 homers en route to a 97 OPS+, a far cry from last year's 36-homer, 115 OPS+ season. He's been in an even deeper funk since the All-Star break, batting just .196/.224/.250 with a 21/2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 58 plate appearances, though he had a pair of two-hit games among his previous three starts.

​Alvarez has hardly been alone in his slump. After starting the first half 15-9 to lift its record to 64-55 — good enough for the top wild-card spot and just 1 1/2 games out of first in the NL Central — the team has lost six straight (two to the Tigers, three to the Nationals, one to the Braves) while scoring just 21 runs. They’re now six games back in the Central, looking up at the Cardinals, who are 3 1/2 ahead of them, as well, and they’re two games out of the second wild-card spot.

The Pirates went 5-3 in their first eight games without MVP candidate McCutchen (.311/.411/.536), who suffered a fractured rib on Aug. 3, but the offense can only last so long without its most vital cog. The good news is that McCutchen is scheduled to be activated on Tuesday; he took batting practice prior to Monday's loss and "felt pretty good," telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Bill Brink, "I pretty much did everything. Swing and miss, check-swung, fouled balls off.” More from Brink:

McCutchen wore an EvoShield compression shirt with extra padding around the rib cage to take pressure off the fracture and protect him from getting hit by a pitch. He expects to wear the extra padding the rest of the season.

He said he felt no pain swinging, but could not be sure whether or not any pain remained in his side.

“I have a really high pain tolerance. I could be in a little bit of pain but not even know it,” he said. “It’s not hindering me from doing anything that I have to do on the field.”

Given his longstanding liability against lefties (.196/.267/.321 career), Alvarez is most likely a platoon option at first base, which means that he could be in Tuesday’s lineup against Braves starter Aaron Harang but sit on Wednesday against Alex Wood. Then again, so long as Harrison remains at short with Mercer on the bench due to forearm tightness, Alvarez could find himself back at third, as he was over the weekend while Mercer sat out. In the bigger picture, his newfound versatility gives Hurdle some options, something that can’t hurt as the Pirates pursue another postseason berth after a 20-year drought.

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