Yordan Alvarez, what a start.
By now it’s common knowledge that Yordan Alvarez, who two weeks ago was relatively unknown outside of educated Astros fandom, has emerged into the Big Leagues with about the hottest start by any player in History. He is one of three players to have seven homers in his first twelve games as a major leaguer. And that’s not all.
Here’s the slash line:
.333/.429/.813, OPS 1.241, wRC+ 222. These are generally very similar, if not slightly better, than his AAA numbers this year. For those who don’t understand wRC+ a 100 score indicates league average. What 222 means is that in his first 56 plate appearances, Alvarez has been 122% better than the average hitter in the major leagues. Just for comparison purposes, the current leaders among qualified players in wRC+ are Cody Bellinger, Christian Yelich, and Mike Trout, all three at 190. Babe Ruth’s best season was 239. For his career he was 197. The Astros’ leader is currently Alex Bregman, at 146.
Let’s look at homers. The major league leader in home runs is Christian Yelich with 29. He has a home run every 10.86 plate appearances. So far, Yordan Alvarez has one every 8 plate appearances. In his great 1927 season in which he hit 60 home runs, Babe Ruth hit a home run every 11.51 plate appearances. If Alvarez continued his current pace of home run production, in 150 games he would hit 87.
No, I’m not going there. Of, course the league will adapt to young Yordan. Twelve games do not a Babe Ruth make. One of the players to get seven home runs in 12 games (actually 10 in his case) was Dino Restelli. Ever heard of him? He played 72 games in 1949, and then 21 in 1951. This is most of what History knows about Dino Restelli. More on Restelli HERE.
The other guy to get seven homers in his first 12 games is Trey Mancini. It wouldn’t be too bad if Alvarez was that. Mancini currently has 17 home runs and a 142 wRC+ for the Orioles.
Another fun fact about the Alvarez start; he has an fWAR (runs above replacement) of 0.9, almost .1 per game. If he played 150 games at that rate he would have an fWAR of 11.25. The last non-steroid enhanced position player to do that was Mickey Mantle in 1957. Babe Ruth had the best season ever at 15 in 1923.
These are surface stats. I promised a deep dive. Let’s plunge.
The question we all want to be answered is: to what extent can Alvarez keep this up? Are there weaknesses that opposing pitchers will learn to exploit? To help answer this these are some of the criteria I want to examine; sustainability/quality of contact, plate discipline, contact rates, zone profile, spray pattern, splits against pitches, left/right splits.
Yordan Alvarez: sustainability
What I want to look at here is how much luck has factored into Alvarez’ success. Has he been getting some lucky hits or are his numbers commensurate with the quality of contact that he has had. Of course, whatever quality of contact he has had up to this point doesn’t prove he will continue to do the same in the future, but if he has just been lucky up to this point, we would have more reason to be pessimistic about the future.
He has not been overly lucky. His batting average of balls in play (BABIP) is a very normal .321, a bit less than his career average including minors.
The website Baseball Savant uses the Statcast system to evaluate a player’s quality of contact, things like exit velocity and launch angle, and tries to estimate what kind of hitting profile a player should have in the long run based on that contact. This is their evaluation of Alvarez so far:
BA .333, xBA (expected batting average) .301, league avg .251
SLG .813 xSLG .670 league avg .409
WOBA (weighted on base average) .500, xWOBA .450, league avg .318
Exit velocity 91.6, league avg 87.4
Launch angle 15.2, league avg 11.0
Barrel % 16.1, league avg 6.3
Hard hit % 48.4, league avg 34.3
Baseball Savant does not do expected OPS, but using their xSLG of .670 and adding to that the xBA of .301 and another .150 for walks (BB% is 15.7%), we can ballpark Alvarez’ expected OPS around 1.100+ based on current contact profile if that were to continue.
In general, Statcast says Alvarez has been a little lucky, but the overall projection remains excellent.
Yordan Alvarez: plate discipline/contact rates
To start with, Alvarez has an excellent walk rate of 14.3% and strikes out at a rate of 23.2%, very reasonable for a guy hitting home runs every eight PA’s. He struck out at about 20% this year in AAA. Many commentators have claimed that Alvarez’ plate discipline is “mature” for a 21 year old. However. I think that a closer look reveals that, strangely enough for such a masher, he has a somewhat timid approach, rather than a disciplined approach, and that improved plate discipline is an area in which the youngster can actually improve, with better overall results to follow.
One reason for Alvarez’ high walk rate, just a tad behind Alex Bregman’s and third on the team, is that already pitchers fear him. His zone % (percentage of pitches thrown in the strike zone) is only 38.2 %, the lowest number on the team (50 PA’s min). He has enough of an eye and enough discipline to take advantage of this, but he could do better.
His O swing % (percentage of balls swung at outside the strike zone) is a relatively high 31.6%, 7th worst on the team, worse than Altuve, and believe it or not, George Springer, who is second best this year at 21.4%. Bregman, of course, swings at the fewest out of zone pitches, only 18.5%.
On the other hand, Alvarez watches a lot of the strikes he does get. His Z swing % (percentage of in zone pitches swung at) is the worst on the team at 56.0%.
I may be inventing a new statistic here, if not, let me know, but I think a pretty good measurement of plate discipline could be Z swing% — O swing%. This would measure how often a hitter swings at the balls he should, and lays off the balls at which he shouldn’t swing. It’s easy to have a low O swing % if you just rarely swing in general. The difference shows real discrimination between balls and strikes. Looking at it this way, George Springer has been utterly remarkable this year. His Z swing rate has been 74.8%, and his O swing % only 21.4%, a difference of 53.4. (This deserves an article) Bregman has only a 42.2 point difference. But the least discriminating hitter on the team is Alvarez at 24.4. Which means he swings at balls in the zone only 24.4% more often than he swings at balls out of the zone. Even Jake Marisnick is at 36.1. His overall swing% is third lowest on the team at 40.9%, just ahead of Tyler White and Alex Bregman respectively. Again, 30% of those are out of zone.
As I said, timid, not disciplined.
Well if Alvarez is swinging so seldom, swinging at the wrong pitches, and looking at a lot of the right ones, how is he doing so well?
Because, when he does swing he makes hard contact so often, and he is making pretty good contact out of the zone.
His O contact % is exactly average on the team at 65.1%, just behind Altuve, surprisingly. (Altuve is known for contact outside the zone) His Z contact rate is the lowest on the team, and his overall contact % is second lowest, just ahead of Robinson Chirinos.
So in summary, Alvarez keeps his walk rate high and his strikeout rate low by just not swinging very often. This works in part because pitchers are afraid to throw him strikes. When he does swing he misses a lot (11.8% SwSt%) but when he makes contact he tends to nail the ball. (see Statcast figures above)
This seems like a rookie profile to me, one that could be exploited in the short run when pitchers figure out which pitches they can get by Alvarez in the strike zone. But it is also an area for growth and improvement in the long run, as he learns the difference between the pitches to swing at and the ones to avoid. Better pitch discrimination should improve his contact% and even his hard hit %.
Alvarez: zone profile and spray pattern
Alvarez is hitting balls everywhere in the strike zone, with a slight preference for low pitches in and just below the strike zone, and pitches in and inside the zone. See chart below, which shows the SLG for each quadrant of the strike zone.
This chart may not include Sunday’s game, as I know I saw him hit a home run on a pitch that was in the low inside part of this chart that is blue.
Looking at this chart it looks like Alvarez gives a pitcher nowhere to hide in the zone. We will examine Alvarez’ splits against various pitches later, but now I would like to show just where pitchers can exploit Alvarez if they throw the right pitch in the right place.
Here is Alvarez’ zone profile against fastballs
So far, Alvarez has had trouble with fastballs that are not in the low, inside part of the plate or near that part of the plate.
Another relevant chart that I won’t show is his zone profile for the curve. I’ll just tell you about it. It’s solid blue. No hits against the curve.
One more, this the slider. Alvarez is hitting the slider, but if a pitcher can hit his spots with it, keeping it low inside or low outside, these are spots that have given Alvarez trouble so far. Of course, as a pitcher, hitting the spot with a slider is a big if, and a mistake with Alvarez on that pitch can be deadly.
Alvarez is crushing change ups too, but we’ll save that discussion for later.
Here is Alvarez’ spray chart. As advertised, he hits balls to all parts of the ball park. This might be the most mature aspect of his batting profile. He keeps his bat in the zone a long time, never over swings, and can wait on a pitch and hit it to the opposite field when necessary. His power to the opposite side is impressive.
So in summary, Alvarez hits pitches anywhere in the zone, although with certain pitches there are blind spots, as is the case with every hitter. And he hits to all fields with a greater than average exit velocity and launch angle (see Statcast above).
In my opinion, the ability to hit a pitch anywhere in the zone, anywhere in the park, with great power, is a very good predictor of future success. Even Ted Williams could not do all three of those things. So far, Alvarez has been able to beat the infield shift by hitting over the infield, and they have to play him honest in the outfield, deep to all fields. No wonder Statcast says he should hit .301 and slug .670.
Yordan Alvarez: Splits
Below is a detailed chart of Alvarez’ performance against each type of pitch he has faced.
What this very small sample size is telling us is that pitchers should stop throwing change ups to Yordan. Rookies aren’t supposed to hit them, but he does. Three of his seven homers have come off change ups, out of only 22 thrown. If a slider gets up in the zone, he’ll hit that out too. Instead of high sliders and change ups, whenever possible, throw him curves. He has been thrown eighteen of them and hasn’t hit one yet.
Against left handers, Alvarez is hitting .667 on four seamers, but only .167 against sliders, although his only hit was a homer. Against right-handers, Alvarez is hitting only .200 against the four seamer, but .400 against the slider.
These are the Fangraphs pitch values against the fastball, slider, curve and change.
wFB/C 0.75.....wSL/C 10.05.....wCB/C -4.34.....wCH/C 22.03
These are Alvarez’ slash lines against left and right handed pitchers.
Right-handed: .333/.415/.806 218 wRC+ 5HR, 29.3 K%
Left handed: .333/.467/.833 236 wRC+ 2 HR, 6 K%
Another good harbinger for Yordan’s future; so far he hits lefties as well as righties. Surprisingly, so far he strikes out far less to left handed pitchers than to right handed ones.
In summary, this is how I think the league will adapt to Alvarez, though no doubt each team has far more data than this, and can get a deeper analysis. First, no more change ups, way more curves. Keep the fastball high and the slider low. (of course, easier said than done). Right handed pitchers should give Alvarez a fastball-heavy mix, high in the zone, with few sliders. Left handers the opposite, go heavy with sliders.
Of course, every bit of this analysis, from word one, is based on very small sample size. But it is the only size available, besides minor leagues, which from all accounts backs up much of this. But I doubt the league is going to just keep doing what they have been doing based on the results Alvarez has pretty consistently had over this 12 game period. I’m pretty sure they are going to take the patterns during that time, and adjust accordingly. Like every successful rookie, Alvarez will have to adjust to the adjustments. His overall skill set, eye, bat speed, bat control, tells me he will not be victimized by a single glaring, exploitable, deadly weakness, that he will adjust. But I don’t expect this current level of production to continue either, of course.
Is Yordan Alvarez another Paul Goldschmidt?
Twelve games doesn’t a Babe Ruth make, nor does it a Paul Goldshmidt make. But the early profile on Alvarez looks enticingly similar.
Let’s look at Goldschmidt’s career stats and compare them to Alvarez’ early expected stats
Goldschmidt career stats compared to Alvarez expected stats, 2019 per Statcast
|Player||BA/xBA||OBP||SLG/xSLG||WOBA/xWOBA||Barrel%||exit velo||hard hit %||K%||BB%|
|Player||BA/xBA||OBP||SLG/xSLG||WOBA/xWOBA||Barrel%||exit velo||hard hit %||K%||BB%|
|Alvarez expected stats||0.301||0.429||0.67||0.45||16.1||91.6||48.4||23.2||15.7|
Yes, I’ve already conceded we cannot project Alvarez’ career based on 12 games. The batted ball profile that Statcast based Alvarez’ expected statistics on could get much worse as the league adapts. Still, there is plenty of room for him to get worse and still be just as good as Goldschmidt.
But what I find interesting is the similarity in the hitting habits between these two hitters, habits which Alvarez brought into the league from the minors. The exit velocity is similar, the barrel% is similar, the hard hit % is similar, the K% and BB % percentages are very similar.
I’ve already shown you the spray chart of Alvarez, how he hits to all fields, a pattern he brought with him to the majors. Look at Goldschmidt’s spray chart. To simplify, I just show his hit distribution.
Like Alvarez, the right-handed Goldschmidt hits to all fields, and hits home runs to the opposite field almost as much as he pulls them.
And look at how Goldschmidt started out in the league. At age 23 this is what he did in his first 12 games.
.268/.318/.463, wRC+ 111, BABIP .429, K% 40.9%
Typically, for a player’s first 12 games, this would seem like a promising beginning, and it was a promising beginning of a great career. But look at Alvarez. He has an exactly double wRC+ with a normal BABIP and has struck about half as much. And he is almost two years younger entering the league.
I looked up the first 12 game averages of the current top 11 hitters in the league plus our own Astros Core Four. Only one started better than Alvarez, that’s another rookie, Peter Alonso. (wRC+ 246) He’s still killin it, so that’s an encouraging sign. The wRC+’s ranged from Bregman, -1, to Mike Trout, 52, Christian Yelich, 84, Carlos Correa 150, Cody Bellinger, 183, to Carlos Santana, 189.
Dino Restelli serves to remind us that a hot start to a career doesn’t necessarily mean a player will have a great career, and many are the greats who have started slowly. But when you look at the entire package that Alvarez presents, size, strength, bat speed, bat control, batter’s eye, this hot start almost surely means good things for the Astros, even with the ups and downs that come inevitably with growth as a major league ballplayer.
Editor’s note: This is an article about the hitting of Yordan Alvarez. Any comparison with Paul Goldschmidt is only in the context of their relative values as hitters, and is not intended to imply they can be compared as fielders.