06 September 2014

Dariel Alvarez - the Latest Advanced Cuban Oriole

Dariel Alvarez, most likely after having made contact with a pitch. Photo courtesy of Christopher McCain / Norfolk Tides.

The outfield defense of the 2014 Norfolk Tides was overall the worst I've seen. At least, I don't remember seeing any more consistently poor outfield defense, and I'm sure I would remember it. Certainly, some of the Tides' outfielders had some strengths - Julio Borbon and Quintin Berry had good range but poor throwing arms; Francisco Peguero had good tools and made some great plays but had apparent lapses in concentration. But the other Tides' outfielders included infielders-trying-to-play outfield like Steve Lombardozzi, Jemile Weeks, Cord Phelps, and Buck Britton; all of whom gave it their best shot but were playing out of position. Even worse were Henry Urrutia, who frankly looked as though he'd rather be the DH; Chris Marrero, who played the outfield like a 230-pound first baseman, and Xavier Paul, who (1) had to be seen to be believed but (2) was such a bad outfielder that he served as the DH instead of Chris Marrero.

When the Orioles promoted Dariel Alvarez from Bowie at the all-star break, then, it was a relief. Alvarez could track fly balls and catch them and could field ground-ball base hits consistently. But it was his throwing arm that wowed us. Francisco Peguero made his share of nice throws, but Alvarez impressed me with strong, accurate throws. He was stretched to play center field, which he did on occasion, but he was a very good defensive right fielder. However, very few major leaguers have built a substantial career just on being a good defensive right fielder; right fielders have to hit. The rest of this piece will explore Alvarez' offense, at least the 50 AAA plate appearances (out of his 183 AAA plate appearances) that I saw.

Dariel Alvarez was following the Henry Urrutia career path. Urrutia signed as a free agent out of Cuba at age 25 in 2012; Alvarez signed as free agent out of Cuba at age 24 in 2013 (he turned 25 in November, 2013.) Urrutia had problems getting able to play legally in the United States in 2012; Alvarez was able to play 22 games between the GCL Orioles, Frederick, and Bowie in 2013. Urrutia started 2013 at Bowie and was spectacular, hitting .365/.433/.550 in 52 games; he was promoted to Norfolk where he hit .316/.358/.430 in 29 games; he spent September with the Orioles and hit .276/.276/.310. Alvarez started 2014 at Bowie and was less spectacular than Urrutia but still good, hitting .309/.332/.487 in 91 games; he was promoted to Norfolk and hit .301/.328/.439 in 44 games. (Of course, Alvarez probably wishes he would get off the Urrutia career path right about now.)

You've probably noticed that Alvarez' on-base percentage isn't much higher than his batting average and consequently he doesn't draw many walks. That's true; combining his AA and AAA seasons he drew 21 walks in 564 plate appearances. He's an aggressive hitter, as the table below (showing the number of pitches he saw at each possible count) illustrates:


Alvarez saw only sixteen pitches with a three-ball count; and he put one of the first two pitches he saw into play 38% of the time (19 out of 50.) He's not someone who works the count to advantage.

The chart below, which details the result of each pitch Alvarez saw, is also revealing:

Taken Strike
Swinging Strike
In Play

Alvarez is a contact hitter. He didn't miss many of the pitches he swung at (15 of 91.) He didn't take many pitches, either - 70 taken pitches in 50 plate appearances. But, in general, the pitches he didn't swing at weren't strikes - 21 out of 70. Taken as a whole, it seems accurate to describe Dariel Alvarez as a player who knows the strike zone but wants to hit, not take a walk.

We have to re-adjust our expectations on offense; offense is declining and numbers which didn't project well three or four years ago project much better now. Alvarez looks like he could become a solid enough regular right fielder in the major leagues, with doubles power and good defense. The question, of course, is whether pitchers will exploit his aggressiveness or whether he can continue his production. If Alvarez can simply maintain his current production, he'll likely have a chance to be a major league right fielder; if he fails to do so, like Henry Urrutia in 2014, he'll likely have to settle for a good career as an AAA outfielder.

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