The maturation of a power hitter, as history has shown time and again, is nowhere near a science, but much closer to an art. Some players never reach their projected ceiling, stymied by one factor or another. * This April, the Pirates are seeing very good things from Pedro Alvarez that indicate -- simply put -- very good things.
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Alvarez crushed three home runs in two days at Wrigley Field this past week, including an opposite-field home run on a fastball against Cubs starter Jason Hammel Wednesday that went 379 feet.
He hit another opposite-field homer at PNC Park against the Cardinals during opening week.
That power to the opposite field is a not-so-subtle sign of growth.
"Anytime you can back the ball up in the zone and hit an opposite-field homer, it's definitely impressive," said Pirates hitting coach Jeff Branson. "It shows the maturation of the hitter. It also shows he trusts himself."
This spring there was an emphasis -- among many other things -- of backing the ball up in the zone, or make contact with the ball back farther on the plate, which keeps it from being pulled.
It's easier said than done.
"It takes time. It takes time to understand because it's very easy to pull," said Branson. "That's a natural thing for us to do, to be able to get the bat head out. That's something over time that you learn, how to back the ball up in the zone -- let it travel -- to be able to finish your swing. It takes time."
Alvarez said he's not putting particular focus on any one thing at the plate, but is happy with his development out of the gate this season.
"I think I'm getting there. I'm hoping to get there every day. Pleased with the progress I've made so far," Alvarez said. "Trying to hit the ball wherever it's pitched. Just trying to keep it as simple as possible."
Manager Clint Hurdle said the approach to hit to the opposite field hasn't been more than any other spring, but explained that Alvarez has been more locked in.
"There's not a ballpark that can hold him. He can leave the park from line to line so it shouldn't be a mindset that he's got to get out front and pull balls," Hurdle said. "He's just been more mindful and stubborn with his approach coming out of the block so far this year. I wouldn't say there's that much more than there's been in the past. Pedro is well aware of where he gets pitched. [He's] become much more aware of how he gets pitched."
Alvarez's five home runs so far have him on pace for a career year.
"As hitters get better, and power hitters take steps forward, that is part of the progression. Many don't make it. There's opposition that fights you. There's pitchers that can complicate things, "Hurdle said.
There's another power hitter Hurdle likes to mention when talking about the growth of a power hitter -- one who hit 548 home runs in his Hall of Fame career with the Philadelphia Phillies.
"Mike Schmidt," Hurdle said. "I've used his case study in many different areas. Mike Schmidt really struggled coming up. When he caught one, he hit it a mile. He also hit under .200 his first year, second year and then his average slowly progressed. Turned out to be a very good player. A Hall of Fame player.
"There is a progression. As I watch Pedro develop, I believe there's more there."
Hurdle bristles at the idea that Alvarez is one-dimensional, citing his improvement at third, his base-running ability and of course, that bat.
"I think it's so naïve. I've heard people say he's got one tool. That's just so blind," Hurdle said. "It's because they see what they want to see. If you watch the man work, watch the man perform. ... He's gotten better every year defensively. He runs the bases as good as anybody we have. The bat's starting to pick up and do some impactful things."
This, he said after Thursday's game, is the best place Alvarez has been in his career.
Home plate collision confusion
Thursday's game at Wrigley Field stirred up all kinds of debate about Major League Baseball's new home plate collision rules when Starlin Castro was called safe on a play at the plate when replay showed that catcher Tony Sanchez had the ball, and may have tagged him out.
Sanchez must have been "blocking" the plate, which the new rule forbids, the debate raged. And it doesn't allow for challenges.
Problem was, it turns out the umpire never cited the new rule as the reason for the out.
And the Pirates could have challenged the call, but didn't.
Rule 7.13, adopted in February, is designed to prevent "egregious collisions." It states: "Unless the catcher is in possession of the ball, the catcher cannot block the pathway of the runner as he is attempting to score. If, in the judgment of the umpire, the catcher, without possession of the ball, blocks the pathway of the runner, the umpire shall call or signal the runner safe."
So if the Pirates did challenge the call -- which Hurdle made clear they absolutely did not -- would the new home plate collision rules have been in effect?
Sanchez thought so.
"When I went in and watched the replay ... if he called him out, they would've challenged it and the play would've gone their way," Sanchez said. "Starling [Marte] makes a perfect throw. I make a great catch, great tag, sacrifice my body and none of us get rewarded. It's clear I'm not a fan of the new rule."
Up Next: Cincinnati Reds
The Pirates and Reds will meet for the first time since last year's National League wild-card game, this time at Great American Ball Park Monday-Wednesday. The Reds, who were 3-6 heading into the weekend, had stranded 71 runners and were batting .214 with runners in scoring position.
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