Yordan Álvarez has been every bit as advertised since his major league debut with the Houston Astros in 2019. The Cuban-born outfielder and designated hitter is an intimidating presence in the batter’s box — he’s listed at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, but it would be reasonable to take the over on both of those figures. Álvarez did nothing but hit as a minor leaguer, despite being younger than his competition at every level.
While evaluators expected him to arrive in 2020, Álvarez instead forced the issue in 2019 when he put up a ridiculous .343/.443/.742 batting line with 23 home runs in just 56 Triple-A contests, earning a promotion even though he was not yet on the 40-man roster. And upon that promotion, he didn’t skip a beat, batting to a .313/.412/.655 line. By raw numbers, he may have taken a small step back, but adjusted to his league, Álvarez was even better in the majors.
All told, Álvarez hit 50 dingers, drove in 149 runs and was at least 70 percent better than his competition as a 22-year-old. Had he put up those numbers over a whole major league season, surely he would have received major consideration for the league’s Most Valuable Player award. Alas, Álvarez had to settle for Rookie of the Year, receiving all 30 first-place votes.
But 2020 was a major setback, as Álvarez started the season on the COVID-19 list. Once he finally was able to get back onto the field, disaster struck again: After just two games, a recurring knee injury ended his season. But after surgery to repair both knees, Álvarez bounced back nicely in 2021 to the tune of .277/.346/.531, although his performance was only 38 percent above the league average.
Here in 2022, Álvarez is the best version of himself, not only getting back to his 2019 form, but blowing past it. To date, Álvarez’s .299/.395/.630 line has been good for a career-best 195 weighted runs created plus (wRC+), which currently ranks second in the AL.1 Additionally, his 17 homers rank second only to Aaron Judge. The recipe for success? Rather simple: striking out less and walking more.
|Season||Strikeout %||Percentile||Walk %||Percentile||Chase Rate||Percentile|
For his professional career, Álvarez has had little trouble drawing walks. If the season ended today, his current walk rate of 13.0 percent wouldn’t even be his career best in the big leagues. But what has set Álvarez apart this year has been his refusal to chase pitches out of the zone. Prior to this season, Álvarez’s chase rate was right around the league average. This year, he is only offering at pitches outside the strike zone at a 21 percent clip.
Thanks to his better eye and more selective approach, Álvarez is getting more out of his swings. His ability to consistently mash baseballs is hardly a new development, but this year he has taken things to new heights. So far this season, Álvarez is pacing the rest of baseball in hard-hit percentage, expected batting average, expected slugging percentage and expected weighted on base average. By xWOBA in particular, Álvarez excels over the competition, leading the next best hitter by more than 30 points.
|1||Yordan Álvarez||Houston Astros||.434||.497|
|2||Aaron Judge||New York Yankees||.442||.463|
|3||Joc Pederson||San Francisco Giants||.389||.453|
|4||Bryce Harper||Philadelphia Phillies||.413||.438|
|5||Mike Trout||Los Angeles Angels||.421||.427|
|6||Willson Contreras||Chicago Cubs||.408||.427|
|7||Taylor Ward||Los Angeles Angels||.463||.427|
|8||Giancarlo Stanton||New York Yankees||.363||.420|
|9||Juan Soto||Washington Nationals||.366||.417|
|10||J.D. Martinez||Boston Red Sox||.416||.414|
Another major improvement that has buoyed Álvarez’s success has been in his ability to hit breaking and offspeed pitches. For the first time in his career, he is hitting non-fastballs better than he is hitting fastballs, with xwOBA marks of .526 against offspeed pitches and .566 against breaking balls. For hitters with at least 20 plate appearances in which they saw either pitch, Álvarez ranks fifth and first, respectively.
Since his debut in 2019, only one hitter has performed better than Álvarez: the one and only Mike Trout. By FanGraphs’ calculations, Álvarez also ranks third in xwOBA, third in average exit velocity, third in hard-hit rate and eighth in barrel rate. Álvarez has more than earned himself a place in the discussion of best hitter on the planet.
The Astros think so, too, as they rewarded him with a handsome six-year, $115 million extension that will keep him in Houston through the 2028 season. Though he could be leaving some money on the table, as he was set to reach free agency at the age of 28, there is no reason to think Álvarez can’t get a second payday, given that his skill set of avoiding strikeouts, drawing walks and hitting for tremendous power is one that tends to age well. FanGraphs ZiPS projections have him as a 4-WAR player or better for four of the six years on the deal, and when he finally does hit free agency, he’ll still be only 31 years old.
Big things were expected from Álvarez before he ever took the field at Minute Maid Park. So far, he’s delivered more than the Astros could have hoped. If he keeps up this pace, Trout may have competition atop the leaderboard of baseball’s best.
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