Bucs seeking answers to offensive woes
Bumped up to cleanup spot, hot-hitting Alvarez getting little to hit
PITTSBURGH -- Pedro Alvarez has been "fixed." Now what?The Bucs' month-long offensive siesta only got thrown under a sharper microscope with Alvarez's weekend ascension into the cleanup spot. They scored three runs in two games with him in the No. 4 hole, as a new problem emerged: The Reds found it easy to pitch around Alvarez, fearless of the lineup behind him. In those two games, Alvarez drew four walks -- doubling his previous season total. That drew manager Clint Hurdle's praise for his discipline. But Alvarez was never advanced beyond first base after any of the walks. When these Pirates talked about making their mark, they intended for it to be notching the team's first winning season since 1993, not for offensive impotence. With 78 runs in 28 games, Pittsburgh is not only the lowest-scoring team in the Majors, but in all of organized baseball, Minor Leagues included. No big league club has averaged as few as 2.79 runs per game since the war-time 1942 Phillies' 2.61. The 1972 Rangers (2.99) and Angels (2.93) were the last to check in under three. The phrase "small sample size" is still being liberally dropped in the clubhouse, in the manager's office and in the general manager's analysis. But with 28 games in the books, the truth is nearly 20 percent of the season is in the rearview mirror. The Pirates knew they would be offensively challenged, hence they were designed as a pitching-heavy club. The pitchers have carried their load. But even their excellent per-game allowance of 3.71 runs is one run short of what they're getting. By now, the offensive quagmire is getting quite thick. The lack of a deep lineup capable of building big innings by stringing together many hits is beginning to sink in. So the guys with power potential are trying to compensate by delivering the big fly. Trying too hard, apparently. Hurdle thought that was behind the 17-strikeout shutout by Cincinnati on Sunday. Cue the "Catch-22" music. "It took a long time to get to this point. So you can't get hot in one day," Hurdle said. It took even Alvarez two weeks. When Hurdle rewarded him with the promotion into the No. 4 slot, he was asked for the reasoning and patiently gave it, as if there was any other logical place for a guy with 39 percent (seven of 18) of his team's homers. "We don't want guys focused on hitting the ball out, but on putting together quality at-bats to create runs," said general manager Neal Huntington, who felt this team would smoothly merge into baseball's renewed emphasis on pitching-speed-defense trumping mere power. "The home runs will follow as a result. We've got a number of guys capable of anywhere between 10-20 home runs, and we've got to get those guys going." Going on past performance, those guys, in addition to Alvarez, are Rod Barajas, Casey McGehee, Neil Walker, Clint Barmes, Andrew McCutchen, Garrett Jones and Nate McLouth. Combined, they will take six homers in 497 at-bats into Tuesday night's PNC Park series opener against the Nationals. Walker got his first knock on Saturday, after which Hurdle broke down his drought -- the homer was Walker's first in 171 at-bats, going back to last season -- in terms that may be applied to the others. "He's basically been finding ways to get a hit," Hurdle said. "He's had balls to drive that he hasn't squared up. More home runs are thrown by pitchers than are hit by hitters; you've got to take advantage when they come." Hurdle also said, "Home runs sometimes come in bunches. Pop that first one, and you might get on a bit of a roll." Alvarez popped three in five games to earn the cleanup assignment. After Sunday's game, he was in little mood to talk about whether he wore a target in the four-hole that Reds pitchers were anxious to avoid. Tersely but politely, Alvarez said, "I've tried to remain disciplined. I haven't noticed a big difference. That's it. I don't mean to be short and I'll talk about the game, but I don't want to answer questions about personal stuff." "They've already tried to flip him, spin him, challenge him, challenge his discipline, his strike-zone awareness," Hurdle said. "I thought he handled it very well. He was still aggressive when the pitch was in the strike zone. Pedro gave us exactly what we were looking for." Will the others begin approaching the expectations? Hurdle correctly pointed out that slow-start syndrome has been gripping many of baseball's top sluggers -- starting with Albert Pujols and Jose Bautista. With so many Bucs affected, however, it's an epidemic here, compounded by such batting averages as .133 (Barajas) and .165 (Barmes). "It gets a lot of attention at the start of the season, which is why everyone wants to get off to a quick start," Huntington said. "No one likes to look up there [at the scoreboard] and see .147 when they come to the batter's box. How you battle through it is a good learning opportunity." Dusty Baker, an All-Star outfielder before becoming a manager, currently with the Reds, got that exam many times. In 1972, for instance, Baker hit .111 through the first month -- and wound up finishing the season at .321. "I always got off to a slow start. For years, it bothered me why I couldn't get off quicker," Baker said over the weekend. "I guess I just needed the reps, to get my timing. I always had this thing, if I was hitting .250 in the middle of May -- then I'm probably gonna hit .300 once the hot weather started taking effect. That's why I was a second-half guy." Maybe that's it. Maybe the Bucs have just been saving it. By now, their return to their past "normal" would blaze quite a trail.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.