So, um, this offseason has been something else for the Astros. The sign-stealing scandal, otherwise known as the “banging scheme,” in 2017 and 2018 has left the team’s reputation irreparably tarnished. At least for those two seasons, anyway. The debacle ultimately cost manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow their jobs a month before Spring Training. Other penalties, to varying degrees, will bring long-term consequences for Houston. Even though Major League Baseball found no evidence that the Astros utilized a similar scheme in 2019 per their report, the Astros don’t have the benefit of doubt about possibly other forms of illegal sign-stealing. Speculation, right or wrong, will continue to run rampant for a while. If you’re an Astros fan, well, better get use to this reality for the foreseeable future.
I find it quite sobering that I have to lead in an article about Yordan Alvarez, the reigning AL Rookie of the Year, in such a manner. Honestly, I’ve wanted to write about Alvarez and key parts of his 2019 performance in contrast to his postseason results all offseason, but the bad taste in my mouth since the scandal broke has been difficult to overcome. To make it clear, at this time, the twenty-two year old isn’t connected to this sign-stealing garbage, unless something else emerges in the future. And that blows m, as Alvarez was a tremendously fun player to watch in 2019. Finally, I have had enough of avoiding the issue and have decided to dive head first, especially when I re-watch clips like this one.
There wasn’t much that Alvarez did wrong in 2019 when it came to hitting a baseball. When he did it was usually with incredible power and authority. For example, both his exit velocity and hard hit rate finished the 95th percentile in the majors. His .432 wOBA was in the top one percent for all hitters. When the regular season was all said and done, by the numbers, Alvarez was outright dominant in both the minors and majors.
Yordan Alvarez in 2019
As with his grand slam shown above against the Orioles last summer, Alvarez did some of his best work in two-out situations. In fact, during the regular season, the twenty-two year old slugger hit twelve home runs with a 1.260 OPS. If you’d sort by the number of results, which I established at 100 here, there wasn’t a better hitter by wOBA in two-out situations (.510) than Alvarez. By pitch distribution, the young slugger saw a bevy of different offerings but generally performed at a high level.
However, his fortunes in those situations unexpectedly flipped for the worse during the postseason, as Alvarez’s wOBA plummeted to .174. I would be remiss to not mention that the postseason is another beast compared to the regular season, as the quality of competition across the board is generally greater. Throw in the usual caveat of small sample size in October and why it is usually difficult to glean meaningful insight from the postseason. But sometimes there is a point worth expanding on, even from a limited sample. First, opposing pitchers weren’t afraid to throw more four-seam fastballs to Alvarez in two-out situations during the postseason.
Generally speaking, hitters in October are likely to see higher pitch velocities due to the quality of the pitcher and the respective situations, especially later in games. The higher the stakes, usually the better the competition. Also, managers are less reluctant to utilize their bullpen, which is full of high velocity throwers, in critical situations. For Alvarez, combined with the fatigue that probably sets in following the longest season of a young professional career by fifty-three games, the increased velocity seen against the Rays, Yankees, and Nationals was a recipe for a tough October.
For additional context, in two-out situations against four-seam fastballs, which Alvarez thrived on during the regular season, he saw an average velocity of roughly 93.9 MPH. In the postseason, however, he saw an average four-seam velocity of 95.9 MPH in those two-out situations. When he swung and missed in the regular season, the average four-seam velocity was 94.1 MPH, compared to the postseason when the average velocity furthered increased to 96.9 MPH. In short, Alvarez looked over-matched at times, although the results did start to materialize as the World Series eventually went to seven games. But the onslaught of relievers throwing with more heat, in my opinion, played a not so minor role towards his overall postseason struggles, although it is far from the only reason.
Combined with a likely factor of fatigue along with adjustments by opposing teams, Alvarez’s postseason struggles represent a keen contrast to his overwhelming success during the summer. Of course, it also helps when you don’t chase pitches all over the zone, which the twenty-two year old did repeatedly four months ago.
The ultimate reason that I bring up Alvarez’s failings in October is to highlight how he is still a young player learning the ropes in the majors. His two-out performance was literally the best among all major league hitters in 2019, which is a noteworthy accomplishment. But baseball is a game of adjustments and the postseason only magnifies this fact. Alvarez lost what was his bread-and-butter when it mattered most. Let’s see how the reigning Rookie of the Year adjusts in 2020.