2021 has seemingly been all roses for Yordan Álvarez. After effectively missing all of 2020 due to injuries to both of his knees, he’s stayed healthy through the first month-plus of the new season. The Cuban native is producing exceptional numbers and is a focal point in the Astros’ rejuvenated lineup. Everything appears to be clicking. For the most part.
Álvarez boasts a gaudy .342/.374/.596 slash line through 123 plate appearances. His wRC+ is 10th in baseball and, despite being a DH, he ranks 24th in fWAR among hitters. On the surface, this is a tremendous start for the 2019 AL Rookie of the Year, but beneath it, there’s a somewhat uneven profile.
There are notable shortcomings for Álvarez, his immense output notwithstanding. None elicit significant concern, but they’re certainly worth monitoring.
Chief among these developments is the batted ball profile. While it’s still quite strong overall, it doesn’t compare favorably to 2019’s. Álvarez made hard contact almost half the time he put the ball in play that year. That rate has dropped to 41.2 percent in 2021.
Additionally, Álvarez’s Dynamic Hard Hit rate (DHH%), a metric created by Connor Kurcon — whom the Astros just hired — is roughly half of what it was in 2019, per RotoGraphs’ Alex Chamberlain’s marvelous Pitch Leaderboard.
These changes have yet to tangibly affect Álvarez, given his outstanding .538 wOBA On Contact (wOBAcon), but it inevitably could, as there’s a substantial 83-point gap between his wOBAcon and his .455 Expected wOBA On Contact (xwOBAcon). Moreover, his BABIP is over .400, which is plainly not sustainable.
Regression might be unavoidable, but Álvarez still has a double-digit barrel rate and has also decreased his ground ball rate while maintaining a low pop-up rate, so there’s still plenty to like about his 2021 batted ball profile. It just doesn’t (yet?) resemble his incredible 2019 profile.
It’s possible that a nearly-20 percent decrease in Álvarez’s pull rate is the primary culprit. As smoking guns go, that’s fairly smoky, though it is too early to tell if his new up-the-middle approach is detrimental.
The other glaring anomaly for Álvarez is his minuscule 3.3 percent walk rate, down from 14.1 percent in 2019. But unlike his batted ball data, there’s reason to believe there will be positive regression.
A decrease of more than 10 points is dramatic but based on multiple components, there shouldn’t be anything worrying for the Astros’ slugger. For one, he’s offering at pitches at a frequency that’s similar to two years ago. Moreover, his chase rate is identical to 2019’s.
The biggest difference between 2019 and 2021 is the amount of pitches Álvarez is seeing in the strike zone, as his Zone% has increased by nearly 5 percent this year. In response, he is swinging slightly more often, but what’s more noteworthy is Álvarez’s increased contact rate against pitches in the zone — it’s up by nearly 4 percent.
Although his strikeout rate is hovering around 25 percent — as it did in 2019 — Álvarez’s deserved strikeout rate (dK%), a metric created by Chamberlain, is 19.4 percent.
It’s difficult to make conclusions in May because, well, it’s May. Concurrently, Álvarez’s prodigious 2019 data reinforces the notion that this year’s numbers could still be great should regression occur.
What’s clear is the Astros’ cleanup man is 100% physically and is a force in the heart of the lineup. There is a chance that his 2021 will fall short of his 2019, but there’s still a possibility that he could match it. What makes it all interesting is how realistic each scenario is, and that, at this point, neither is more likely than the other.
The data in this article was compiled via Baseball Savant, Pitch Leaderboard and FanGraphs