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Yordan Alvarez: A second look

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It’s must see TV! All Yordan all the time.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s note: This article was written before last night’s game in which Yordan Alvarez hit a home run and a double. His two RBI last night gave him 35 in his first 30 games, breaking a record set by Albert Pujols for most RBI in a player’s first 30 games. Truly phenomenal.

In episode one of the adventures of Yordan Alvarez, we left our young slugging hero breaking all sorts of rookie records; seven homers in 12 games, a phenomenal slash line that went like this: .333/.429/.813. But as the chapter closed we wondered, can he continue? Is he the next Big Papi, or just another Dino Restelli?*

So let’s check in with our big Cuban masher and find out if he’s still the young master of our National Pastime, or if the game has, at last, started to master the young apprentice.

Yordan Alvarez: Recency

When we ran our first analysis on Yordan on June 24th, his wRC+ was an astounding 222 in 56 PAs. No knowledgeable person could expect that pace to continue, and of course it hasn’t, but the young phenom continues on a strong pace.

Let’s take another look at Alvarez. Let’s see where he has regressed since our last visit, and a few areas where he has actually shown growth.

From June 25th through July 21th, Alvarez has slashed .333/.389/.576, OPS 1.065, wOBA .398, wRC+ 156. He had three home runs in 72 PAs. He has clearly regressed on the surface although these are still impressive numbers. A 156 wRC+ for a whole year would place him third in the AL, right behind George Springer and just in front to Alex Bregman.

However, when we first reported Yordan at 222wRC+, his BABIP was a sustainable .321. In this second time frame he’s been extremely lucky; .412. Let’s take a deeper dive at the sustainability numbers.

We’re going to compare contact data, contact rates, and plate discipline to see how Yordan is adjusting. Later we will look at pitching data to see just what Yordan is adjusting to, in other words, how have pitchers figured is the best way to get the young phenom out.

Yordan Alvarez 2: Sustainability

The following chart compares Alvarez’ Statcast contact data from early season to contact data since June 25th. These numbers show that, indeed, pitchers are having more success in the last three weeks than they did in the first two.

Yordan Alvarez contact data, period 1, period 2, and whole season YTD.

Y. Alvarez xBA xWOBA Exit velo launch angle barrel % hard hit %
Y. Alvarez xBA xWOBA Exit velo launch angle barrel % hard hit %
pre-June 23 0.301 0.45 91.6 15.2 16.1 57.1
June 25-July 20 0.271 0.349 N/A N/A N/A 51.2
total year 0.287 0.397 92.9 13.5 17.1 53.9

Three takeaways:

  1. Alvarez is not making the kind of elite contact with the same consistency that he was at first. He is down in every category of expected averages.
  2. There is a big discrepancy between his results and the quality of contact. In other words, Alvarez has been pretty lucky, even more so than in the first period we measured. Based on contact his BA should be .271. It has been .333 during this period. The league average is .251. His wOBA in this second phase is .398. It should be .349. That’s still good but not elite. If he hit a .349 wOBA for the year he would be around 60th in MLB. League average is .318. In summary: his regression is more serious than his traditional stats indicate.
  3. Splits for exit velo, launch angle and barrel % were not available, but we can infer the trend from the season totals. Exit velo is up slightly, launch angle is down, and barrel percent is up, and it was already well above league average. However, hard hit % is down slightly. (This stat was taken on Fangraphs)

There seems to be some contradiction here. If exit velocity is up, barrel % is up, launch angle still well elevated, and if hard hit % remains elite, why such a decline in expected averages?

Let’s delve more.

Yordan Alvarez: plate discipline/contact rates

Since our first look at Yordan, one alarming change is his increased strikeout rate and reduced walk rate. His K% is up to 31.9 from 23.2, and his walk rate is down from 14.3% to 6.9%. We said before his initial approach was somewhat timid, and he has become more aggressive since then. His swing rate has gone up almost 8% to 48.5%, and Yordan is swinging at more pitches both in and out of the zone. And while swinging at about 6% more pitches out of zone, his contact percentage is lower out of zone. ( In other words, he is swinging at more bad pitches, and missing a larger percentage of them than before.

On the other hand his contact rate in general has gone up considerably, from 71.1 % to 78.5%. He is making contact inside the zone at a remarkably high 92.7%, up about 16%. His swing and miss percentage is down about 1% to 10.5%.

Given that his overall contact percentage has improved, and that hard contact is still very high, how do we explain the lower expected averages forecast by Statcast.

I believe a deeper look at the contact data provided by Brooks Baseball gives us the key. The contact Alvarez is making is FOUL BALLS to a much greater extent. Go HERE and HERE.

Untitled

Pitch Type foul/early phase # pitches foul/later phase # pitches whiff%/early whiff%/later
Pitch Type foul/early phase # pitches foul/later phase # pitches whiff%/early whiff%/later
4 seam 37.84% 97 58.33% 95 29.73% 10.42%
Sinker 40.00% 47 45.00% 41 13.33 5.00%
Change 30.77% 19 26.32% 36 30.77% 31.58%
Slider 18.75% 32 52.94% 38 25.00% 23.53%
Curve 0.00% 16 38.1% 44 100% 47.62%

The point is, although Alvarez is making more contact, it is foul ball contact, especially on the four seam and slider. It would appear that by hitting more foul balls, Alvarez is getting himself into more two-strike situations, and then either whiffing at or watching strike three.

For the season, Alvarez is very weak with two strikes. With an 0-2 count he is hitting .087, with 1-2 it is .154, with 2-2 it is .172 and with 3-2 it is .083. Fouling himself into two- strike counts has not been ideal for Yordan.

Let’s look at Alvarez’ contact profile for balls in play. This data comes from Fangraphs, July 20th.

Alvarez contact profile, balls in play

Y. Alvarez Line dr % GB % FB% In. Fly ball% soft con % Med % Hard %
Y. Alvarez Line dr % GB % FB% In. Fly ball% soft con % Med % Hard %
pre-June 23 31.4% 25.7% 42.9% 0.0% 8.6% 34.3% 57.1%
June 25-July 20 26.8% 41.5% 31.7% 7.7% 9.8% 39.0% 51.2%

The key takeaway here is the increased ground ball rate. Along with the increased foul ball rate, this would partly account for the decrease in xwOBA. The reason we didn’t see a larger drop in launch angle is because in the first period Yordan had no infield flies, but this time his increased ground ball rate is offset in the launch angle stat by a number of high pop-ups/easy outs.

I did not include the spray data in this chart because it is not significantly different in the two periods. He still hits to all fields, although to the opposite field the least.

In summary: Alvarez is making slightly more contact and whiffing slightly less, but the bulk of that increased contact is foul balls and ground balls. His exit velocity remains high, but a BABIP of .412 in the second period is clearly unsustainable, which partly explains the Statcast xwOBA projection based on contact from 6/25 - 7/20 that is above average for Yordan going forward but not elite.

Pitcher Adjustments

In the first article we concluded that the league should attack Alvarez with fewer change-ups, way more curves, high fastballs, especially from righties, and low sliders, especially from the lefties. Let’s see what happened.

Below is a chart of the pitch distribution for Fangraphs, before and after June 23.

Profile of pitches faced by Alvarez, before and after June 23

Y. Alvarez FB SL CT CB CH
Y. Alvarez FB SL CT CB CH
pre-June 23 65.0% 10.5% 5.5% 7.3% 9.1%
June 25-July 20 51.1% 17.5% 3.0% 13.1% 13.8%

Fastball use definitely dropped, with increases in sliders especially. The league followed our advice when it came to more curves, but ignored us by increasing the percentage of change-ups.

Let’s look at Fangraphs pitch value data to see how Yordan is adjusting too these changes and how well he is attacking each pitch. Positive numbers on this chart indicate better than average results against that pitch.

Alvarez effectiveness against various pitches , before and after June 23

Y. Alvarez FB/C SL/C CT/C CB/C CH/C
Y. Alvarez FB/C SL/C CT/C CB/C CH/C
pre-June 23 0.69 9.99 -4.08 -4.44 21.98
June 25-July 20 2.60 -0.62 1.82 -1.24 -0.41

Pitchers are throwing Yordan fewer fastballs and with good reason. He is hitting them better. On the other hand, he has lost the advantage he had with sliders and change-ups, both going from overwhelmingly positive values to slightly negative. He is still having problems with curves, but not as much.

Let’s break down the results on each pitch from Brooks Baseball.

This is Alvarez’ results and averages before June 23.

Here’s what it looks like after June 23.

It’s tempting to say Yordan is hitting the four seam better than he was, but his BABIP on that pitch is much higher in the recent period. But anyway you look at it, pitchers should avoid throwing sinkers to Alvarez at all costs. Good thing Brent Strom is on our side.

Yordan has cooled off on the change up, or probably, his home run luck on it has ended. The slider has emerged as a much more effective weapon, and the curve remains Yordan’s Achilles heal, but at least he got one hit off of it. And as we saw before, he is also starting to foul it off as well.

In the previous article we suggested that right handed pitchers should attack Alvarez with high four seams, and left handed pitchers should attack Alvarez with low sliders. Everyone should attack with curves. In such small samples, it’s hard to tell from heat maps whether pitchers are throwing to different locations. But as it turns out, the left handed pitchers are particularly prone to throw Alvarez curves rather than sliders now (30 to 9 since June 25th) and only 3 change ups. This definitely represents a learning curve, as before June 23, lefties threw Alvarez 16 sliders and only one curve.

Right-handers are throwing more sliders than curves (29 to 14), whereas before June 23, the ratio was almost one-to-one, 16 sliders to 15 curves. He has only one hit off either pitch against righties (43 total) and two hits off those same pitches from lefties (39 total).

Of course, in such a small sample the ratio of curves to sliders is influenced by which pitchers Alvarez has faced, as many pitchers have a curve or a slider, but not both.

Another adjustment that pitchers may have made against Alvarez is one too complicated to deal with here; that is, pitch sequencing. I don’t know how to prove this statistically, but from watching every at bat it seems that the anti-Yordan strategy has been to alternate between high and low almost every pitch to keep him off-balance. Pitchers seem to be setting him up for low breaking balls, which tend to be the ones he is swinging at and missing the most. I could be imagining things, and of course that wouldn’t be a strategy unique to Alvarez, but it seems very pronounced to my eye. If I’m wrong you are free to comment.

The following charts show Alvarez’ whiff rate heat maps before and after June 23. He is clearly swinging and missing more above and especially beneath the zone since June 23rd, but missing less inside the zone as noted earlier.

I believe that the reason for the greater whiff rate below the zone is that pitchers are more effectively setting him up for the low breaking ball.

Splits

Previously we found that Alvarez had even splits against left and right handed pitchers. Has either gotten an upper hand on him?

Here are the splits between 6-25 and 7-20.

LHP: .273/.304/.636 BABIP, .364, K% 39.1 wRC+ 145

RHP: .350/.422/.550 BABIP, .481, K% 26.7 wRC+ 159

Although the RHP results look better than the LHP results, the higher RHP BABIP calls the difference into question. But even against lefties he’s still mashing. Alvarez is striking out more against lefties, but hitting with more power when he connects.

Summary

Alvarez is experiencing growing pains, and it has been due to good fortune that this hasn’t been more noticeable. He is striking out more, hitting more grounders, and instead of solid contact, is hitting more foul balls. Of course, his rate of home run production has diminished as well. He still hits the ball hard, but he has been fortunate to have as many hits from balls in play as he has had. Pitchers have discovered his relative weak points, throwing more curves and sliders, possibly using better sequencing and location to keep Alvarez off-balance.

In the short run I expect to see more pronounced struggles from Alvarez, as his ball-in-play averages normalize and the “book” on Alvarez continues to grow and spread.

Of course, this is exactly what you would expect to happen to any rookie who got off to a hot start. The question is, how does he adjust?

I feel positive in this regard long-term. First off, even from the most pessimistic perspective, he’s still doing very well against the league, even without the good luck. When he does make contact, he crushes, and no one can take that away. If this is what Alvarez’ growing pains look like, with an xwOBA in the last three weeks equal to the wOBA of Edwin Encarnacion for the season, then what will a mature Alvarez look like?

And I see evidence that he is making adjustments. For one, his plate discipline has already improved. Yes, he is swinging at bad pitches outside the zone more, but he is swinging at an even higher percentage of balls inside the zone, rather than watching called strikes. He is hitting a remarkably high number of those pitches in the zone, even if many of those hits are foul. In his first two weeks, he did not even touch a curve ball with his bat. He swung and missed at every one. At least now he is starting to make contact. Point is, he is honing in on the strike zone. He is adjusting even as the league is adjusting to him.

He will continue to make contact, and when he does, he hits so hard that good things happen a large percentage of the time.

It is not reasonable to expect Yordan Alvarez to hit like Big Papi in his first season. Even Big Papi didn’t hit like Big Papi until he was about 28. But he could be that good in two years. He has the strength, the bat mechanics, and a remarkably good eye and discipline for a 22 year old. And when a guy’s exit velocity of 110 MPH seems merely routine, it is no wonder why so many off-the-end-of-the-bat or off-the-label nubbers manage to find a place beyond the infield. The kind of power, grace, and bat speed that Alvarez has are extremely rare, and cannot be taught.

In a matter of days, we will have a lineup of George Springer, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Michael Brantley, Carlos Correa, Yuli Gurriel and Yordan Alvarez.

Oh my.

Editor’s note: Alvarez’ home run last night was a good example of what raw power can do. Balls that hit the bat that close to the label do not ordinarily find their way past the right field bullpen in Minute Maid Park.

Dino Restelli. Hit seven home runs in his first ten games and then his career faded into oblivion.