Stats Geek / Brian O'Neill: Pirates' best move with Alvarez is no move

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On the morning of Sept. 19, I got an email from a long-suffering Pirates fan (pardon the redundancy) who said manager Clint Hurdle had no guts if he didn't bench Pedro Alvarez.

This fan couldn't have been alone -- then. There can be long periods when Alvarez is hard to watch, and in the 30 days ending Sept. 18 he had hit .192 with 31 strikeouts in 29 games. He had only three home runs and 10 RBIs in that span of 104 at-bats.

I wrote back to the man, saying the Pirates should still play Alvarez against right-handed pitchers because "you can't hit your way out of a slump sitting on the bench."

I'm a stats geek, not a seer, but Hurdle's faith in Alvarez clearly paid off. From Sept. 19 through the regular season's end, Alvarez hit .324 with three home runs and nine RBIs in nine games. In five postseason games, he's hitting .313 with three home runs and six RBIs, with all three long balls and five of the RBIs coming in just the four games with St. Louis. (To put that in historical perspective, the team record for RBIs in a postseason series is seven, and that was set in series that lasted seven and eight games.)

So now the complaint with Hurdle is that he hasn't had Alvarez batting cleanup since, like, forever.

I wrote an online-only column Tuesday pointing out that those who would move Alvarez from the sixth to the fourth spot in the order actually would have taken RBI opportunities away from him in this series. Take a look at the on-base averages of the top three hitters in the Pirates lineup, and compare those to the OBA of the three batters immediately preceding Alvarez when he bats sixth.

On-Base Average

Player ... Reg ... Post

Starling Marte .343 .227

Neil Walker .339 .136

A. McCutchen .404 .545

Justin Morneau• .370 .286

Marlon Byrd• .357 .316

Pedro Alvarez .296 .368

• -with Pirates

The problem has been more with the table-setters atop the order than with Morneau batting fourth. Alvarez has been getting, and cashing in, his RBI opportunities this postseason. He has driven in himself three times, Andrew McCutchen once, Justin Morneau once and Josh Harrison (pinch-running for Morneau) once. Marlon Byrd, meantime, has driven in himself once, Morneau twice, McCutchen once and Neil Walker once.

Unlike McCutchen, who has found runners on base in only four of his 18 plate appearances this October, the guys hitting behind him and Morneau are seeing a lot of ducks on the pond. Nobody has gone to the plate more times with runners in scoring position than Alvarez. He has seen more than twice as many of those situations as Morneau.

Postseason Plate Appearances

Player ... Total ... Runners ... In Scoring Position

Marte ... 22 ... 6 ... 3

Walker ... 22 ... 5 ... 4

McCutchen ... 22 ... 4 ... 2

Morneau ... 21 ... 13 ... 3

Byrd ... 19 ... 9 ... 5

Alvarez ... 19 ... 9 ... 7

Martin ... 19 ... 6 ... 5

Scoring runs isn't just about the first hit or the last one. It's about stringing hits together. Walks by Morneau and Byrd have pushed runners from first to second this postseason, and those runners later scored. Byrd pulled the same trick with a double Sunday. All those guys on base, four through six, have set up the RBI opportunities for Alvarez and Russell Martin, who also has six RBIs this postseason: himself twice, Byrd three times and McCutchen once. (Martin, by the way, was hitting even worse than Alvarez -- .128 -- in that 30-day period ending Sept. 18.)

Unless you want to take everyone out of their comfort zones and make the three through six hitters your one through four hitters, leave it alone. Marte and Walker are slumping, but they can hit. The argument that middle infielder Jordy Mercer would be a messiah if Hurdle would only start him and bat him second doesn't hold up to mild scrutiny.

The Pirates are facing a very tough right-handed pitcher tonight in Adam Wainwright, and Mercer hasn't hit right-handers as well as Walker.

Player BA OBP Slg

Walker .256 .350 .455

Mercer .247 .297 .357

Mercer also hasn't hit Cardinals pitchers this year (.192 AVG/.222 OBP/.385 Slg in 26 at-bats) as hard as Walker (.281/.347/.469). It's true that Walker has hit poorly at Busch Stadium III in St. Louis this season (.172/.219/.241 in 29 ABs), but Mercer hasn't exactly torn things up (.214/.214/.500 in 14 ABs).

The smaller the sample size, the less predictive results are going to be. Those panicking about the minimal contributions by Marte and Walker should look to their seasonal averages. A few hits could make the past few games as forgotten as Alvarez's April. As for Morneau's power outage, he hasn't been the prototypical cleanup hitter, but he has contributed to a few rallies by lengthening innings and setting up the men behind him.

Hurdle could bat Alvarez fourth. I've heard the argument that No. 3 hitter McCutchen wouldn't have swung at a borderline 3-1 pitch and popped out with two outs and a man on first in the bottom of the ninth Monday if Alvarez had been waiting to come to the plate.

But McCutchen is hitting .412 with a .545 on-base average in the postseason so that "protection" racket is a tough sell. Besides, like it or not, Alvarez has hit better while slotted lower in the order. June was his best month by far (.309/.380/.680 with 10 home runs, 24 RBIs) and he batted mostly sixth and only once higher than fifth. He got hot at the end of September batting sixth and seventh, and he's hot now batting sixth. In 301 career at-bats batting fourth, he has only 12 home runs while hitting .183/.259/.359.

Why tempt fate when Alvarez is knocking in runners where he has been?

What the Pirates need in Game 5 are hits from anywhere, not to mess with the batting order. If they lose, let them lose with the team that finished strong and has won three of five postseason games so far.

pirates - brianoneill

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com. First Published October 8, 2013 8:00 PM


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