On August 1st, 2016, Dodgers President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman and General Manager Farhan Zaidi traded one of their prospects to the Houston Astros for reliever Josh Fields. The prevailing thought process was clear at the time, the Dodgers were racing toward yet another possible World Series run, and they needed another high-impact thrower in the pen to help out guys like Pedro Baez, Joe Blanton, and Kenley Jansen. They saw that potential missing piece in Fields, who at 30 had just come off his career best season a year prior for an Astros team that was itself getting stronger by the year.
In return, the Dodgers sent over a 19-year-old first baseman who had just been signed by the club on June 15th. Over that 45-day span, LA hadn’t tested the kid in any games at any level, so they had no idea what they had in him. In his native Cuba, the teenager had appeared mostly at first base, but the Dodgers didn’t need anyone there as they had locked up all-star Adrian Gonzalez until the end of the 2018 season. Additionally, they also had a guy named Cody Bellinger who was highly touted down in the minors.
There was also a possibility that he could have played some time at either of the corner outfield positions, but the Dodgers already had a plethora of guys like Yasiel Puig, Kike Hernandez, Trayce Thompson, Scott Van Slyke, and Howie Kendrick to fill in both in left and right. Add to the fact that they still had Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier, who were both battling injuries that season, and you wouldn’t be foolish to say that they had the depth and could shed one unproven guy.
One funny thing that happened when the squads were negotiating was when Astros GM Jeff Luhnow asked for the Alvarez kid from Cuba, Zaidi was quick to say no. What made this funny in retrospect was that Zaidi had actually confused the Alvarez that Luhnow actually wanted with Yadier Alvarez, a highly touted pitching prospect within the Dodgers' system. While the Dodgers weren't interested in moving that particular prospect, they were willing to send over the one that Luhnow wanted in exchange for Fields.
You’ve probably already figured out that the kid they sent to the Astros was Yordan Alvarez, a player that ended up being so good so quickly that it’s still shocking to think that he’s only played 87 career regular season games. So this week, let’s talk about what makes the 22-year-old one of the most exciting players to watch right now.
One thing that is immediately apparent when watching Yordan Alvarez at the plate is that he shows supreme confidence every single time he’s there. From the moment he made his debut on June 9th, he looked like a veteran who belonged on baseball's greatest stage. He finished his first game in the big leagues with four plate appearances. Over that span, he walked, cranked two fly balls to left field for put outs, and clobbered his first career home run to deep left center field off Orioles’ starting pitcher Dylan Bundy.
Two days later, Alvarez slugged his second homer of his career, this time to right field off the Brewers’ Matt Albers. He would continue his torrid pace during the Stros’ following series against the Blue Jays, smacking two more dingers. One thing that was eye-opening to me while I was doing my research was that not only could he easily find the bleachers just about anywhere inside Minute Maid Park, but he had the uncanny ability to crack the ball better than almost anyone in the league, rookie or not. According to Baseball Savant, one of the internet’s greatest bastions for baseball nerds, Alvarez finished his first five games with six batted balls reaching over 100 MPH on Exit Velocity. That means that he was able to get great contact off major league pitching immediately after making his debut. He would finish his rookie campaign with an average Exit Velocity, or EV, of 92.2 MPH, which was 13th best in the league.
Because he had such a good handle on opposing pitching so quickly, he finished his first month in the MLB sporting a .317/.406/.733 slash line, which is MVP caliber, seven home runs, and 21 RBIs. The only rookie who had a better debut month in 2019 was the Reds’ Aristides Aquino, who famously finished August with a .320/.391/.767 slash line, 14 home runs, and 33 RBIs.
The difference between Alvarez and Aquino, however, was that while Alvarez was able to keep his strong play up for the remainder of the season, Aquino wasn't as fortunate. The Cincinnati Slugger completely capitulated during his second month by sporting a pedestrian .196/.236/.382 slash line and adding only five homers in September. On the other hand, Air Yordan finished his weakest month, which was also September, with a comparatively better .296/.394/.605 slash and six homers. His .999 OPS (on base + slugging) in September was also his lowest for any month, yet it was still exceptional by anyone’s standards. Comparatively, NL Rookie of the Year Pete Alonso’s lowest OPS in a month was his .764 in July.
Another area where Alvarez surprised me was that he was almost as good hitting off left-handed pitchers as he was against right-handers. Against southpaws, the Cuban slashed .307/.389/.649, sported a 1.038 OPS, and struck out 23 percent of the time over 131 plate appearances. Against righties, he slashed a marginally better .317/.424/.658, flashed a slightly higher 1.083 OPS, but struck out 27 percent over 238 plate appearances. To see such a young player be able to perform similarly against both righties and lefties is admirable, especially when he himself is a lefty.
It’s no wonder that by those metrics, and many others, Alvarez was the easy choice for the American League’s Rookie of the Year Award. He received every single first place vote and became the 5th player since 2000 to win the ROY by unanimous vote in the AL. The other four guys during that time were Evan Longoria (2008), Mike Trout (2012), Jose Abreu (2014), and Aaron Judge (2017), all of whom have ended up being stars in the majors. 2019's other highly touted rookies like Cavan Biggio, Eloy Jimenez, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. simply had no chance to eclipse Air Yordan.
When I look at Yordan Alvarez, I see someone who could possibly reach the 500 home run club. He's a big guy who is also fortunate enough to have a near-perfect Barry Bonds like swing. The only thing about him that concerns me is his health and longevity. For every big guy who mashes tatters like David Ortiz, Harmon Killebrew, and Hack Wilson, there are more guys like Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder, and Richie Sexson who while showed promise early, just couldn't stay healthy.
Toward the end of last season, Alvarez was hampered a little bit by a slight tweak to his left knee that caused a bit of discomfort. This issue was brought up once again during Spring Training, so he was made to miss a little time to nurse it back to health. I'm not saying that a little knee soreness could potentially derail his career down the road, but it is something that I'll be monitoring as he gets older. Again, Yordan is a big guy, he stands 6'5" and weighs around 225 pounds. If there's one injury a slugger that big doesn't want, it's anything knee related.
The one thing that does ease my mind a little is that I don't think he'll be made to play in the field too often while he's with this current Astros squad. Out of the 87 games he appeared in 2019, he spent only 10 of them in the field. Of those 10, he played all of them in left field. As of writing, the club has four guys at that position, including All Star Michael Brantley, so I don't see any reason to have him out there too many times in 2020.
I think if the Stros want to maximize Alvarez's potential and make him a sure fire MVP candidate for years to come, the powers that be over there should have him focus almost exclusively on his hitting. They should help him find ways to lower his strikeout rate, which was too high for my liking, and make sure he maintains his already incredible swing.
I see big things in Yordan Alvarez's career. I think that if he stays healthy and continues to progress, he could become one of the better power hitters of the past 30 years. Who knows, maybe when it's all said and done, we'll be looking at this guy as the league's greatest designated hitter and the proper heir apparent to Edgar Martinez and David Ortiz? All I can say is if you go to an Astros' game down the road, be sure to bring your binoculars, because this kid might hit one to the moon one day.