04 December 2015

Dariel Alvarez At The Plate

Joe Reisel's Archives

There is a difference of opinion among Orioles fans about Cuban expatriate outfielder Dariel Alvarez, who played the 2015 season at age 26. Some fans envision him as a solid right fielder for the Orioles because he has an outstanding defensive reputation and power (16 home runs with AAA Norfolk, which plays in a pitcher's park.) Others acknowledge his defense but see him as AAA roster filler because of his low on-base percentage (.305, also at AAA Norfolk), lack of strike-zone judgment, age, and pedigree as a lower-level Cuban signee.

In my roles as datacaster and BIS scorer, I got to see a lot of Dariel Alvarez. The strongest impressions I have of him as a hitter are him wildly swinging and missing at a pitch which looked to be far out of the strike zone. At least once Alvarez swung so hard at a pitch he missed that he went down to his knees. These memories leave me thinking that he will wildly swing at anything and everything, wasting at-bats like a modern-day Glenallen Hill.

But is this correct? Does Alvarez swing at everything? When he does swing, does he miss frequently? How, if at all, does this reveal itself in his performance? I will look at Alvarez' plate appearances in the games I saw, focusing on the individual pitches.

During the 2015 season, I scored 50 Norfolk Tides games, which incorporated 177 of Alvarez' plate appearances - just under 1/3 of his season. While not comprehensive, this is a reasonable sample and should give us a fairly good idea of what Alvarez does. The table below shows the results of each pitch Alvarez saw in those 177 plate appearances:

Pitch Result
Ball / Hit by Pitch
Called Strike
Swinging Strike
Put in Play

First, Alvarez saw 598 pitches in those 177 plate appearances, or 3.38, per plate appearance. For comparison, the major-league Orioles saw an average of 3.81 pitches per plate appearance. So Alvarez does seem to be seeing fewer pitches per plate appearance than most other batters.

But my impression that Alvarez swings at everything and misses most of the pitches he swing at is wrong. In my experience, at the AAA level, the number of balls is about equal to the total number of called, swinging, and foul strikes. Although Alvarez does have more strikes than balls, the difference isn't extreme. What's more interesting is that, also in my experience, there is roughly an equal number of called strikes, swinging strikes, and foul balls. Alvarez has about half as many swinging strikes as usual and about one-and-a-half times as many foul balls. It seems clear that Alvarez is fouling off pitches that many other batters swing at and miss.

Another interesting breakdown is the number of times Dariel Alvarez concluded his plate appearance at a given count. In over 20% of the plate appearances I saw, Alvarez put the first pitch in play:


The table above shows that 37 times, the last pitch Alvarez saw was on a 0-0 count - the first pitch. 16 times, the last pitch was on a 1-0 count - the first pitch was a ball and he put the second pitch in play (or was hit by it.) And so on. Only twice was the last pitch on a 3-0 count, but that's not atypical - most of the time batters take the 3-0 pitch.

When Alvarez did put the first pitch in play, he produced at a .324/.324/.541 pace. That looks good compared to Alvarez' overall .275/.305/.424 numbers, but there's a catch. Batters can neither strike out nor walk on the first pitch, so to better evaluate Alvarez when he swings at the fist pitch we should compare that performance to his non-strikeout/walk performance. When not striking out or walking, Alvarez performed at a .314/.319/.483 pace. Alvarez hit with more power when putting the first pitch into play, but wasn't substantially better at getting on base. To be fair to Alvarez, all of these plate appearances occurred at Norfolk's Harbor Park, a pitcher's park, so Alvarez' performance is potentially better than it looks.

The most interesting is that Alvarez put the first pitch in play 37 times in 177 plate appearances, a much higher rate than usual. There are two possible explanations - either Alvarez swung at more first pitches than most batters or that Alvarez put into play more of the first pitches he swung at. In these 177 plate appearances, Alvarez took the first pitch 107 times and swung at the first pitch 70 times (putting 37 into play and missing or fouling off 33.) He swung at 39.5 percent of first pitches, which is high but not extraordinarily high (the Tides swung at between 35 and 40 percent of first pitches in 2015.)

Alvarez doesn't swing at and miss pitches; he swings at and puts pitches into play. Like some other prospects, such as Dodgers (and former Braves) prospect Jose Peraza, Alvarez is too good at making contact. Consequently, he has a relatively low strikeout total but a low walk total. But unlike Peraza and other players with "too-good" bat-to-ball skills, Alvarez has power. His .424 slugging percentage with Norfolk looks unimpressive, but Harbor Park is a bad park for power hitting; the Tides as a team slugged .353.

What makes Dariel Alvarez such a hard player to project is that there just aren't many players like him. He doesn't have a high on-base percentage (OBP) and probably won't contribute enough on offense to be a good right fielder, especially if major-league pitchers can take advantage of his willingness to swing. And the Orioles don't need another low-OBP batter in their lineup. Also, most Cuban expatriates, with a few very highly publicized (and expensive) exceptions, top out as AAA lifers. Faced with these facts, I feel obligated to think that Alvarez won't have much of a major-league career. But Alvarez is such an unusual player that I can't completely write him off. Similar players have had decent major-league careers as part-timers with occasional seasons as regulars. If the Orioles don't sign another outfielder, Dariel Alvarez might end up being the Orioles' best right-field option for 2016.


Matt Perez said...

Do you have data on how he performs against left handed pitching vs right handed pitching? Is he the same against both?

Jeremy said...

An interesting and fair evaluation. Of note, Fangraphs just released their Orioles 2016 prospect list (http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/evaluating-the-2016-prospects-baltimore-orioles/) and here is what they had to say about Alvarez, whom they ranked as the #9 prospect in the organization:

At 27 years old this year, Alvarez is reaching the point where he is what he is. What he is, is a player who has solid tools all around with some questions about how well they can show up in big league games.

His raw power is indisputably impressive, but a downward swing path limits the opportunities for him to put the ball in the air with authority. He makes a ton of contact in the zone, but he was exposed in his short MLB stint this year when he chased a ton of pitches outside the zone with little success. He has excellent sequencing in his upper body, particularly with his back arm action in the swing, similar to a lot of great big leaguers. He gets so steep that he needs to keep the same approach as in the minors, which consisted of attacking pitches in the zone mercilessly.

The rest of his profile is pretty solid: fringy range but a smooth glove, a legitimate plus-plus arm with a quick release, and below-average baserunning skills. At the plate, I think his contact ability shines through, which ends up hurting his power by allowing him to hit some balls that he’d be better off swinging through.

Hit: 55/55/60 Power: 40/40/45 Run: 45/45/45 Field: 50/50/55 Throw: 70/70/70
Overall: 45/45/50+

Jon Shepherd said...

I think that is a fairly kind and convoluted assessment of Alvarez. I would say he is a 40, not a 45. His skills just do not scream bench for me, but I could see someone who thinks that. I think the hit tool grade is kind and that is really where it all comes from. He cannot show power in game. He is basically a big arm. Probably should have been brought along as a pitcher, but as I understand it he really wanted to hit.

Matt Perez said...

As I understand it, Fangraphs discussed its rankings with the Orioles. The Orioles seem to like Alvarez. It wouldn't surprise me if that got Fangraphs to play up his rankings a little.

Joe Reisel said...

#Matt Perez - I didn't break the data down by left-handed vs. right-handed pitchers. I could, but because I'm generating my data manually from my pitch-by-pitch scoresheets, it's a lot of work and I've been busy with other endeavors. I don't have access to this data in electronic form; if I did, it would be much easier to generate these breakdowns.

#Jon Shepherd - I think you're being unfair when you say Alvarez "cannot show power in game." He hit 16 home runs at Norfolk last season. The minor leagues play a five-month schedule, so that is equivalent to 17-18 in the majors. Out of Harbor Park I can easily see Alvarez as a 20-home run hitter in a major-league season.

Jon Shepherd said...

I don't think that converts to mlb quality pitching. Succeptible to high velocity and plus breaking balls. He can touch them but he does not manage to barrel them.

JDB said...

Good article on Dariel Alvarez, congrats! If BS gets over his xenophobia and allows Dariel to play regularly, he will be a solid contributer and solve half the corner problem.

Jon Shepherd said...

The reason why the club has few Latinos has very little to do with Buck and more to do with the club not spending much money to bring in players from that region.

Anonymous said...

If only he was left handed......

Matt Kremnitzer said...

I don't think that's what the problem is.