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Once an afterthought, Orioles' Pedro Álvarez showing signs he's matured into more complete hitter

Minor league cities across America are littered with ballplayers like Pedro Álvarez was last year, seeking a way back to a big league job that for so long was taken for granted.

Some will try to transform themselves, as Álvarez briefly attempted as a right fielder. Countless others will overhaul their swings to try to align themselves with a new trend.

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The path back for Álvarez, it turned out, was to use the experience in the most basic way — daily baseball for the purpose of maturing into a fully formed hitter, one that both he and the Orioles believe is better than the one who led the National League in home runs in 2013 and swatted 22 long balls for the 2016 Orioles.

"Every year I get older, every season that goes by, I get more and more comfortable at the plate," Álvarez said. "It's just staying within myself and really trusting my game plan. It happens with anybody. Pitchers get older, they pitch better. There's just something about the game where the more reps you get, the more comfortable you feel, the more comfortable you look. The goal is to keep progressing, keep learning, and I feel like I'm on the right track."

A 1-for-10 spell Wednesday through Friday didn't do much to dampen that optimism. It left Álvarez with a .257/.395/.486 batting line with a pair of home runs, two doubles and seven RBIs in 35 at-bats, statistics buoyed by a more selective approach at the plate in that small sample size.

His 18.6 percent walk rate entering Saturday was nearly twice his career 9.5 percent rate. He also cut his overall swing rate from 46.9 percent in his career to 41 percent this year, with his O-swing — his swing rate on pitches out of the zone — down from 32.5 in his career to 30.3 through Friday. (All stats according to FanGraphs.)

Manager Buck Showalter said the transformation started to show through in the reports from minor league hitting coordinator Jeff Manto and farm director Brian Graham sometime in the middle of last season.

"He figured some things out down there," Showalter said. "They kept telling us … that this guy's really in a good place. He's going to figure some things out, and he came up here, if you remember — he was really good [in September] — spitting on a lot of pitches. And I think he kind of carried that over. He just needed an opportunity, and he's kind of run with it."

The experience surely provided perspective for the former first-round draft pick and can't-miss prospect who was nontendered by the Pittsburgh Pirates after the 2015 season, signed a cut-rate deal with the Orioles in 2016 as a platoon designated hitter, then had to sign a minor league contract with the intention of learning the outfield in 2017.

When that didn't work out, Álvarez was forced to simply become the best version of what he'd become — a powerful left-handed hitter in a league growing devoid of them.

Álvarez, 31, swatted aside the theory that Triple-A pitchers, out of self interest more than anything else, taught him better discipline by pitching around a player they knew was a certified major league slugger and former All-Star, forcing him to be more selective. The book is out on him, Álvarez said, and "those books travel down to the minor leagues as well."

"It wasn't anything different other than being better selective, and swinging at better pitches to hit and staying within myself," Álvarez said.

"I think the big thing is quitting on some pitches," Showalter said. "Not a lot of people are going to attack him with strikes, and fastball strikes in the strike zone. But when he does, he's prepared for it."

Being on time for the fastball is something that has helped the likes of Nelson Cruz and Mark Trumbo take giant steps forward before. Showalter believes there's also value in knowing that they won't be plentiful, especially when you combine fastballs are being thrown more scarcely than ever and the Orioles see them less often than anyone.

"The people that hit well — I was talking to a hitting coach in the offseason — [are] the guys who figure that out, finally figure out that it's a different game as far as the breaking balls," Showalter said. "That's what Pete has kind of gotten, that idea of, 'OK, they're not just going to sit here and [throw fastballs].' He takes the walk. He's hit some breaking balls, too."

Álvarez's new approach has led to Showalter batting him second against right-handers in their patchwork lineup without Jonathan Schoop (oblique) and Mark Trumbo (quad). His ability to sustain it as the Orioles prepare for a schedule packed with right-handed starters going forward will determine what his role is once the Orioles get to full strength.

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"A lot of that can [change]," Álvarez said. "You know how this game is. Things change overnight. You square balls and they're out. You get jammed, little squibblers and they're hits. The thing is, you can't let those things predict how you feel or how you go about the game. My objective is to be the toughest out I can be anytime I get the opportunity to at the plate. I've had some good at-bats this year, and I just try my best to keep moving."

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