Air Yordan, flying solo
What is a slugger?
He’s your beloved big boi, Daniel Vogelbach or Rowdy Tellez, made to mash baseballs and not much else, but he can be also a 5-tool phenom, running like the wind and fielding acres in the field a la Byron Buxton.
He’s a physical specimen, a giant among kids like Aaron Judge, an adonis like Luis Robert…but also the smallest in your class, if he’s a Jose Altuve or Jose Ramirez!
The only thing all these players have in common, apart from having enough talent to play in the big leagues, is what they are able to do with a bat: damage, in homers and extra bases, is what defines a slugger, much more than anything related to positions and traits.
In an age where 1–9 almost every lineup is comprised of batters able to punish the ball, the definition of slugger is murky: damage is everywhere, and there are many ways to do it.
For a dead pull monster, elevating and celebrating like Patrick Wisdom, there you have his teammate Seiya Suzuki, collecting bases by going the opposite way; for premium heavy hitters, HardHit or die in the Giancarlo Stanton school of thought, there are those able to rack up bombs even with below average Exit Velocities, aiming high Launch Angles and friendly park confines, as in the best Marcus Semien and Eduardo Escobar editions.
These are some of the best sluggers so far in 2022: certified NY mashers, still best player in the league Mike Trout, underrated demolisher C.J. Cron and out-of-Tropicana Willy Adames.
They all do it a bit differently: someone pulls like no tomorrow, others spray the ball around; someone airs it early and often, others smash it on the ground more than usual; someone hits it like a truck, others are feast or famine.
In this group an Astro stands out for what is a unique slugging profile, one that is between the endless Stanton onslaught and the all-fields ability of Bryce Harper.
Yordan Alvarez slugs, and he does it his own way.
This literal Hell of a Savant page should surprise nobody: Yordan is one of the premier sluggers in MLB, a behemoth of a human being that combines all-world power with a keen eye at the plate, so that he’s a tough client, not chasing out of the zone and waiting for a mistake to crush, wherever it may go.
In the slugger classification he’s certainly closer to Tellez than Robert, but he’s capable of busting it out for a hit, to the tune of a max 29 ft/s as in above league average speed, and lo and behold, he’s playing more LF than usual, with the few ground the Crawford Boxes allow him to cover in Houston he’s barely in the red at -2 OAA. He may not have 5 tools, but he’s not that mono-dimensional, and even if that’s so, his only dimension is almost unrivaled.
A top 1% in almost every metric related to Quality of Contact, Alvarez is one of the scariest ABs in all of baseball along with Juan Soto, Trout and co: barely ever stepping outside the box, he rests the bat on his shoulder, small leg kick and then a compact, devastating cut that knows no bounds.
What makes him different from the other sluggers though? Let’s have a look!
1) Equal opportunity damage: all fields power
Yordan may be a power LHB, but his hit profile is that of early Altuve: in the immortal words of Mark DeRosa he “doesn’t cheat to anything”, adapting his crushing blow to the location of the pitch thrown to him.
Middle-in fastball? Straight back at you. Breaking ball buried on his feet? Pull shot to right. Offspeed away? Oppo bomb. Alvarez has no hole to be found on his swing, able to catch up with high cheese and low spinners, he can kill you the standard way, pulling a monster bomb to RF, or in the more hitter-ish one, a deluge of opposite field extra-base hits as he did in his 2021 ALCS MVP performance, denting the Green Monster in Boston by means of oppo cruise missiles.
Marvel at such a work of art: Yordan paints the field in its entirety with hard hit baseballs, majestic homers and some of the longest singles Statcast ever tracked, dead ball says hi: while many other sluggers in the list like to aim pull-side, Adames Wisdom and Trout almost half of their batted balls, Yordan is more akin to Cron and Vlad Jr, a simplistic approach in that he tries to fight middle-away and punish errant pitches to pull.
There might be a case in asking him to avoid Central as in Houston both LF and RF are so short he could flick homers at will, but if the cost is more Chases and Whiffs I’m not sure it’d be worth it: in the end, Yordan doesn’t need to look for porches and boxes when he can routinely shoot 420+ ft blasts in the night sky.
2) Hard or close to it: an optimized contact profile
One of the issues with the new way of hitting, as in meeting the ball out front instead of letting it get on the way of a good swing, is that, when you get too much in front, abysmal contact ensues as in slow grounders and drowzy popups.
Hitting the ball hard may seem like a prerequisite for a slugger, but not many are able to dip to their HardHit reserve constantly, and almost no one does it better than Yordan:
When Alvarez hits a ball, it’s something coming back at 95 or more mph: his Hard% is the best in MLB with Aaron Judge, and only the Yankees bomber has a similar contact profile, a sheer hatred for Soft contact, both barely over 7%, and Hard contact rates over 46%.
To no one’s surprise Judge has almost 20 homers and we have yet to reach the end of May, Maris’ 61 a reachable plateau, while Yordan has “only” 12 bombs, but so does Cron, and they couldn’t be more different in their contact ways, so that while Yordan only hits it hard, Cron runs a putrid 20% Soft and only a 33% Hard…Coors Field and high LA sure pair well!
Yordan is missing some Line Drives and he ought to run a FB rate over 40% but he’s still producing at an elite level, even when…
3) A true Astro: no hitting luck
Well, here we go again! Along with the other LHB young phenom in Houston, notorious unlucky starter Kyle Tucker, Yordan is also having a tough time with the BABIP gods: in the top 10 slug table only Adames has a lower one, and Yordan’s .229 is 70 points behind league average and 140(!) trailing the fortunes of Cron.
For all the good he’s achieving with the bat, he should have a gaudier statline! Is it only dumb luck? Yes…but a wildly specific one!
What is going on with Fastballs!? Yordan is not missing them and returning those straight offerings as bullets, yet he’s well below his xStats even without Whiffs…what gives?
A-ha! Four seamers are getting crushed but not Sinkers: a sub .100 BA is ludicrous even with a middling xBA and low slugging, Yordan should have got a couple bases more out of the turbo sinkers pitchers are proposing nowadays, a return to the old times, from North gas and South benders to sweepers and sink, East to West and vice versa.
To note, Alvarez never had any trouble against the sinking fastball and he’s mashing both Breaking and Offspeed at career rates, so it’s only a matter of time before things start to even out and Sinkers start flying to the stands.
All is good in the hood then!? Almost, if not for a little remark:
He’s Whiffing as usual, around league average, and that’s good for such a potent bat! He cut 5 percentage points off of his Chase, and that’s even better! He’s even swinging at more pitches in the zone, a sign that his improved discipline is not faked by general passivity at the plate, rather a true progress in his swing decisions.
He’s also one of the most passive hitters in the 0-0 count though which is…interesting?!
A tad more aggressive this season, he’s still swinging at only around 1 out of 4 first pitches, and that’s not due to pitchers trying to get him to fish and go up 0-1:
Of all 0-0 pitches to Yordan so far in 2022, 62 were called balls: that’s a 39% First Pitch Ball rate considering his 158 PA, which by the law of opposites returns a 61% First Pitch Strike rate. Things should be clear now: Yordan is only swinging at 27% of those strikes!
51 out of 158 PA, a 32% Called Strike rate on first pitches: in a third of his PAs Alvarez is watching the first strike sail by him, and that is a big chunk of damage he’s missing, albeit “not all strikes are good pitches to hit” as an old adagio says.
For instance, he’s only swung and missed 9 times at a first pitch, a ridicolous 5.7%, and has yet to pull a first pitch into play…could he be a fan of Pitches per Plate Appearance as I am?!
This also explains the following:
Yordan ain’t chasing a bit, but 8 runs lost on pitches middle-middle do hurt and much of them on the first pitch because as it turns out, pitchers do not like to just throw the ball down the pipe to him: he’s walking like a true egyptian, almost an elite 15% BB rate, and with a much improved K rate at less than 19% too.
There’s the only blemish on what is in all facets a new, better Yordan Alvarez: even if it may cost him a long AB, a walk here and there and generate an easy out or two, the Astros big man has to dial up the aggression early and punish pitchers who dare to throw him a strike 0-0.
Baseball as we know it, even with a dead ball, humidors and any other concoction, is a game of power: pitchers are throwing harder fastballs and filthier breaking stuff, and hitters are responding by smashing baseballs harder and farther. Homers are still the most important mean of run production, even more so when they are harder to come by and strikeouts are still on the rise, contact plays and small ball yet to have a true resurgence.
In a world where everyone does damage, Yordan Alvarez does it better than almost every other hitter on the field, day in and day out: he won’t greed for pull, he won’t chase your nasty sliders, he won’t swing at the first pitch, he should though, and he simply won’t stop punishing mistakes, sending seeds all over the field as a good farmer would do.
He’ll wait there, at the plate, not stepping out, no rituals, no Nomar Garciaparra mannerisms: bat on his shoulder, pitch by pitch, another battle, another poor baseball to do damage on.
All stats and graphs from FanGraphs and Baseball Savant, data up to May 24th.