By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Just when there were some serious questions being raised about whether Pedro Alvarez was ever going to grow into the power-hitting force the Pittsburgh Pirates envisioned when they drafted him with the second pick of the 2008 draft, he suddenly and dramatically pounded his way onto the National League All-Star team.
True, a season ago he hit 30 home runs, but the batting average remained low and the strikeouts high.
More than 300 games into his major league career, it was time to hit or get off the pot, so to speak, this season, because that was a path that many of the game’s great sluggers of the past had followed, needing some time to learn their craft.
But Alvarez was beginning to push the limits of everyone’s patience as this season unfolded, so much so that early in the year he actually had people talking about his outstanding defense rather than his hitting.
April 15 was a terribly taxing day for Alvarez, who was batting .073 at the moment, 13 games into the season. When April turned to May, he had pushed his average up to only .180, and as late as June 2 he stood at .199.
Clint Barmes looked as though he had a better chance to be named to the All-Star team ... and the Pirates’ shortstop had no chance at all.
Then it clicked.
In June, he batted .309 with 10 home runs and 35 RBIs in just 26 games and has carried it over into July, where he went into Tuesday night’s game batting .321 for the month’s seven games in which he had played.
History indicates this may not be a glitch on a .240 career for Alvarez, especially since in recent days he has shown an ability to use the whole field, which should help cut down on excessive strikeouts in an effort to be a home-run-or-nothing hitter.
It’s a lesson from Philadelphia’s Mike Schmidt, the prototype Hall of Fame third baseman, to start a career slowly and then learn to hit both for power and average following his disastrous rookie season when he batted .198 with 18 home runs and 136 strikeouts in just 367 at bats.
He was lucky to get some good guidance quickly.
It was Bobby Wine, the Phillies’ shortstop who, with second baseman Cookie Rojas, would make up one of the great double-play combinations in the game that became known as “The Days of Wine and Rojas,” who would straighten Schmidt out.
“You sting the ball when you hit it, Mike. But you also strike out too often. Remember, when you’re up with a runner in scoring position you don’t have to drive the ball 700 feet. Just hit it to right-center or left-center. You’re a good player, a good hitter.”
The advice hit home. Schmidt wound up a career .267 batter with 548 home runs and 1,595 RBIs.
What happened with Schmidt was not unusual among great power hitters.
Hitting is the most difficult skill in sports to accomplish successfully, and hitting for power makes it more difficult yet. It takes time to learn to be patient, to study pitchers, to learn to pull ... so many things.
This is just a partial list of great sluggers whom you might have traded in their first full seasons.
• Barry Bonds, .223, 16 homers, 102 strikeouts.
• Willie Stargell, .243, 11 homers, 47 RBIs, 85 strikeouts.
• Sammy Sosa, .233, 15 homers, 70 RBIs, 150 strikeouts.
There are many more, and it hasn’t changed in recent days. Chris Davis of Baltimore, the talk of baseball right now with his power hitting, played in 100 or more games in 2009 with Texas and hit .238 with 21 homers and 150 strikeouts.
He’s still striking out a lot, but leads the majors in home runs and is batting .320.
Sometimes power hitters never catch on how to hit for average or stop striking out, as evidenced by the likes of Dave Kingman or Adam Dunn, who were almost mirror images, each batting .238 for his career, Kingman 429 homers, Dunn 442 while Kingman struck out 1,816 times in his career and Dunn 2,132 including a career high of 222 in one season.
Players such as Bonds, Schmidt, Stargell and Sosa, among many others, went on to become Hall of Fame or near Hall of Fame quality hitters, which Davis now seems to be on his way toward and which Alvarez could be if he can continue down the path he now seems to have discovered.
And, the way he is hitting and swinging the bat at present, it may just be that the best thing to ever happen to him was to be left out of the Home Run Derby prior to the All-Star game, an event that can screw up so fragile a swing for months at a time.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.