Nothing Yordan-ary About This Rookie: In Just 87 Games, the Astros' Yordan Alvarez Produced Runs at a Historic Pace.
"You can't be 22," Houston Astros players would say to him. "How are you only 22?"
"Everybody jokes about that," Alvarez said, grinning, the day before the 2019 postseason began. "Even our teammates joke about that. But I checked with my mom, and she says that I am who I am. I'm my age."
With a little more than a half of a major-league season under his belt, Alvarez, a Cuban native whose mere presence turned the Astros' scary lineup into a terrifying one, is still in the getting-to-know-you phase with the Houston fanbase. There wasn't a lot of time for him to adjust to the major leagues, but as he showed with his bat and pristine understanding of the strike zone, there wasn't much of a need for a grace period.
Alvarez jumped right into the fray, putting up record-setting rookie results bordering on cartoonish. His presence made the Astros' offense one of the most impenetrable in baseball.
Upon conclusion of the 2019 season, Alvarez was named Baseball Digest/eBay's American League Rookie of the Year.
There were other candidates worthy of consideration--among them Chicago White Sox outfielder Eloy Jimenez, Tampa Bay Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe and the Toronto Blue Jays' second and third basemen Cavan Biggio and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.--but this one really wasn't close.
Alvarez finished the 2019 regular season tops among AL rookies in extra-base hits (53). Among all rookies with at least 300 plate appearances, he led in OPS (1.067), OBP (.412) and slugging (.655). His OPS is the highest by a rookie in Major League Baseball's modern era, ahead of "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, who posted a 1.058 OPS in 1911.
Alvarez swept up several awards during his short time in the big leagues. He was named AL Rookie of the Month in June, July and August, a run reminiscent of Aaron Judge's trifecta of the award in April, May and June of 2017.
Not a bad way to jump-start what looks to be a promising major-league career.
"He's so smart, so mature," Astros second baseman Jose Altuve said. "It seems like he's been playing in the league for a long time. He's quiet at home plate. Normally when you're that young, you're a free swinger and you get mad really quick. He knows how to control his emotions and that's what impressed me the most about him.
"He's ready to hit and when he gets his pitch, he crushes."
The confirmation that he is truly only 22 only reinforces the very real possibility that the Astros may not have to search for a DH for the next decade. If first-year performances foreshadow what's to come, the Astros can leave that piece of the puzzle completely alone. They didn't even have to go to great financial lengths or give up a load to get him, and they'd probably agree they were aided by a little luck when they nabbed the Cuban left-handed slugger.
They'll take it.
"His plate discipline for a rookie was extraordinary," Astros president and general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "He's happy to take a walk if it's there for him. He's happy to take a pitch the other way if it's there for him. And sometimes those pitches the other way go into the (left-field) Crawford Boxes."
So how did the Astros come to land this 22-year-old phenom?
That's a story in itself. There was a midseason trade with the Dodgers in 2016, and it generated about as much attention as most seemingly minor transactions would. The Astros sent veteran reliever Josh Fields to the Dodgers in exchange for Alvarez, a raw, untested minor-league outfielder who was so new to the Dodgers organization that he hadn't even signed the final papers to make his commitment official.
The news came and went in Houston without much reaction. A few fans on social media expressed displeasure to lose such a steady bullpen arm in Fields. That was about it.
The Astros, however, knew what they had just acquired, given they had interest in the teenaged Alvarez as an amateur free agent. They didn't have enough room in their international signing pool in '16 to sign him, and they were hoping he would still be available the following season. The Dodgers were more aggressive, and Alvarez, hesitant to wait a year, took the offer.
"I remember the day he took the offer, we were kind of disappointed," Luhnow said. "And then I sort of forgot about him. Once a player signs with someone else, you put him out of your mind."
That changed six weeks later when Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi, seeking reinforcements for his playoff-bound club, contacted Luhnow. Zaidi was aggressive with his desire to acquire Fields, and though Luhnow was also discussing Fields with other interested teams, he found the Dodgers to be the most persistent.
"The players we kept asking for, they kept saying 'No, we can't do that, we can't do that,'" Luhnow recalled. "You always start kind of up our list and move down. Then we got to the point where going any lower wasn't going to satisfy us. We were at an impasse."
But then he remembered Alvarez.
"I thought, "Well, if we can't get a minor-league player that we're really excited about, why don't we just take a flier on this young guy that they just signed that I know we like?'" Luhnow recalled.
A few phone calls later, the deal was done. Josh Fields to the Dodgers; Yordan Alvarez to the Astros.
Alvarez, who had not yet even received his signing bonus from the Dodgers, smiled at the memory of finding out he was dealt.
"I was surprised and a little worried," he said. "I didn't know what a trade was. I thought they might have been releasing me. I was really surprised, but when they explained it to me, I understood."
It's still early, but it's fair to assume the Astros won this trade. Fields, no doubt a good Rule 5 pickup for Houston who contributed to the 2015 Wild Card run, pitched in three seasons for the Dodgers and was released during spring training last year.
Alvarez, on the other hand, is probably going to stick around for a while.
"This team was already good when he got here, and he made us way better," Altuve said. "I'm happy to have him."
After joining the Astros organization, Alvarez thrived at the team's Dominican Republic academy. When he reported to spring training the next year, "There was a buzz in camp," Luhnow said. "All the coaches were talking about this kid that's crushing the ball."
The Astros invited Alvarez to major-league spring training camp in 2019, with the assumption he'd be in the big leagues at some point during the season. They made that move in early June, expecting him to fit in well in the Astros lineup. They could not have imagined how quickly he would adjust to major-league pitching.
Alvarez set a major-league record for RBIs within a player's first 30 games (35 RBIs), surpassing Albert Pujols (34 in 2001), and then broke Ted Williams' mark of 47 RBIs in his first 45 games (in 1939) with 51.
"It's a combination of great hitting and a great approach," said Aledmys Diaz, one of several Cuban players on the Astros roster who helped Alvarez get acclimated to his new surroundings. "He has a plan. Some rookies come up here and they don't have a plan. They just react to the ball. He's different. He looks like he's been here forever. He's able to execute whenever a pitcher makes a mistake."
That's probably one of the reasons why teammates joke that Alvarez can't possibly be only 22. Players at that age are typically a little more excitable while they're still figuring things out. Other than breaking his bat over his leg after one particularly frustrating strikeout late in the regular season, Alvarez has shown little emotion on the field.
"I've always been like this, since I was a kid," he said of his laid-back demeanor. "It's always been a part of me."
Despite the high-caliber rookie season, Alvarez will have to make adjustments as his career progresses. He struggled at times in the postseason, which in some ways was to be expected. October is a different animal--every opponent is elite, the pitching is at a premium, and there aren't any two-week stretches of playing teams barreling toward 100 losses, as is the case in the regular season.
Once a hitter has been in the league for a handful of months, videos are dissected and pitchers are a little more able to expose vulnerabilities of a hitter's swing. Given the high caliber of pitching the Astros faced in October-first from the Tampa Bay Rays, then the New York Yankees and finally, the World Series champion Washington Nationals--Alvarez' middling results were not that out of the ordinary.
Alvarez logged 14 hits in 58 at-bats for a .241 average over 18 postseason games, but went just 1-for-22 (.045) with 12 strikeouts in 24 plate appearances in the ALCS. He recorded one home run and three RBIs in the postseason, striking out 21 times. He rebounded in the World Series, leading all hitters with a .412 batting average (7-for-17) in seven games (five starts). Alvarez struck out just twice in the Series while drawing four walks.
The Astros' playoff window is still wide open, and their prospects to play October baseball again next year remain strong. Expect Alvarez, whose 27 home runs in 2019 topped Carlos Correa's 22 in 2015 for a new franchise rookie record, to be in the middle of the batting order, again, but this time, with more experience and a better understanding of what to expect.
Before the postseason began, Luhnow likened Alvarez to Pujols-same calmness in the batter's box, with a similar ability to recognize pitches.
"You just knew if he got a pitch anywhere in his hitting zone he was going to destroy it," Luhnow said of Alvarez. "The fact that you can just see the pitchers notice how confident he is--he doesn't even step out of the box. He's ready to hit right after he swings. Most hitters have to regroup. He just says, 'That one didn't work. Bring it on.' I think that kind of freaks out pitchers a little."
By Alyson Footer
Alyson Footer has worked in Major League Baseball for 23 seasons and is currently a correspondent for MLB.com, based in Houston.
Highest OPS, Rookie Season Modern MLB History (Since 1900) Player Year OPS Yordan Alvarez, Houston Astros 2019 1.067 Joe Jackson, Cleveland Indians 1911 1.058 Aaron Judge, New York Yankees 2017 1.049 Ted Williams, Boston Red Sox 1939 1.045 George Watkins, St. Louis Cardinals 1930 1.037 (Minimum 300 PA) Source: Elias Sports Bureau
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|Date:||Jan 1, 2020|
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