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Pirates hope Alvarez continues strides from October

All-Star, Silver Slugger third baseman eyes improvement from breakout 2013

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The first two full years that Pedro Alvarez spent in the big leagues established that the Pirates' third baseman is a power hitter to be reckoned with. Thirty homers in 2012. Tied for the National League lead with 36 last season, made his first All-Star Game, reached triple digits in RBIs, won the Silver Slugger Award.

Then came the playoffs and maybe, just maybe, the curtain parted and the world got a glimpse of the upside the 27-year-old still possesses. In six games in October, when it matters most, he set a record by driving in at least one run in each of his first six career postseason games. He batted .300. He hit three homers. His OPS was 1.148.

Which begs the question: Is Alvarez, the second player taken overall in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, on the verge of taking yet another giant step forward in 2014?

Clint Hurdle would like to think so. The Pirates' manager has said that his team's optimal lineup has Alvarez batting cleanup, a spot in the order that Alvarez hasn't been able to consistently hold down to this point.

"As impactful as anything for me was the postseason, what he was able to throw out there," he said. "It was good at-bat after good at-bat.

"We'll see how that plays. I do have to believe that he's been able to empower himself. His teammates were empowered by it, the quality of his at-bats. And he went to the post for us. If you look it up, I put it on Pedro last year. I challenged him in a very strong fashion, and he responded very, very well."

Maybe it's not fair to keep expecting more from a player who is fifth in the Major Leagues in home runs the last two seasons. Whose average of one homer for every 15.5 at bats was the best in the NL. Who became the first Pirate to lead the league in homers since Willie Stargell in 1973 and set a franchise record for homers by a third baseman. Those who know Alvarez best, though, suggest he expects more from himself than anybody.

"What it is, Pedro is a perfectionist. He wants to be the perfect hitter. He wants to be the perfect fielder," said Pirates third base coach Nick Leyva, who works with the infielders. "He's a good thinker. He's always thinking. And sometimes you've just got to play this game instinctively. Just leave it alone and go out and play with your physical ability. He analyzes a lot. We've gotten him to step back a little bit and just relax.

"The three years I've had him here are basically the three years he's been in the big leagues. We've been together. Great improvement. His work habits are second to none. We set up a routine for him in Spring Training that we want him to do on a daily basis and he sticks to it."

His defense is getting better. While he made 27 errors each of the past two seasons, he also accepted nearly 100 more chances in the field in 2013 than he did in '12.

Inside the clubhouse, he's known as a great teammate. To outsiders, he's a bit of an enigma; he chose not to be interviewed for this story. But even those who see him up close, every day, believe he will continue to improve.

"I think the sky's the limit for Pedro. He's extremely talented. He works so hard," said second baseman Neil Walker. "Everybody knows his abilities on the offensive side of things. I've always considered him a very special player. He's had a couple solid seasons and he's only going to get better. He's a solid contributor to this team. He knows his abilities and he's going to get the most out of them."

And while there's no guarantee that having success under the bright lights of the playoffs will be a launching pad to even bigger and better things, it can't hurt, either.

"This game is so much about confidence and when you have that kind of confidence, especially in the postseason and especially in big situations, it can certainly take you to that next level. From a mental standpoint, it can put you in a really good place going into the next season," Walker said.

Any hitter is better when he can work the count in his favor, but some of the numbers are striking. Alvarez went to an 0-2 count in 118 plate appearances last season, which helps explain why he batted .233 with a .296 on-base percentage. When behind in the count, he hit just .142. When he got ahead, though, he batted .326.

"The [goal is] get him to being more focused on what pitchers want to do to him," said hitting coach Jeff Branson. "Understand how pitchers attack him. 'What are they doing to me in certain situations?' [Late in the season and in the postseason], he started to understand, but he still has ways to go. At bat, he has to find the freedom not to have to think about mechanics."

Even though his production didn't reflect it, Alvarez struck out just 22 times in September, by far his lowest total of any month. That may have foreshadowed the numbers he put up in October, the eye-popping performance that has the Pirates thinking the best may still be yet to come.

"We [want him to] continue to maximize what he showed in September and October," said general manager Neal Huntington. "And that was the ability to close down, and the ability to close some of those holes and to become a better hitter with power [rather] than a power hitter that occasionally gets hits. He's making great strides there."

And, if October is any indication, he may be primed to continue making great strides in 2014.

Paul Hagen is a reporter for Tom Singer contributed to this report.
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