A Yordan Alvarez Appreciation Post

You’re probably still underrating Yordan Alvarez. I don’t mean this as a slight. I’ve never met you, most likely. I don’t know what you think about Alvarez. Maybe you’re a friend, or a hopeless Astros homer who thinks that every player they acquire will turn into Mike Trout, or just someone who believes in small-sample breakouts. But the odds are, you don’t remember how good Alvarez has been.

Let’s demonstrate some of this with lists. Here is a list of the top five hitters in baseball, as projected by Steamer and ZiPS:

Best Projected Hitters, 2021
Player Proj wOBA Proj OPS
Juan Soto .414 1.017
Mike Trout .410 1.007
Ronald Acuña Jr. .391 .944
Freddie Freeman .386 .933
Yordan Alvarez .382 .935

The best player in baseball, two of the game’s brightest young stars, the 2020 NL MVP, and then Alvarez.

Is that where Alvarez lines up in your head? Probably not. That’s no fault of your head — he only played in two games last year, and only 89 so far in his major league career. Our brains aren’t wired to see a debut and think of someone as one of the best players in the game. No one’s wondering whether Kyle Lewis or Ke’Bryan Hayes is Freeman’s equal with the bat. That’s just not how baseball works.

Only, sometimes it is how baseball works. The reason that we instinctively downplay one truncated season of statistics is because there’s just too much noise. Anyone can be hot for a month or two. The best rookie batting line in 2018, for example, belonged to Ryan O’Hearn, ahead of some chumps named Soto and Acuña. And Alvarez hasn’t even played a full season; why wouldn’t he be O’Hearn?

As it turns out, some skills get meaningful more quickly than others, and Alvarez excels at all of those. You already know about the light-tower power, but today, I want to talk about a more subtle skill he demonstrated, one that bodes well for his ability to keep raking.

What am I talking about? In my eyes, he demonstrated an advanced understanding of the strike zone from the moment he was called up. That’s a nebulous claim, one that I could make about plenty of hitters. But I’m going to show my work, because the way Alvarez works pitchers over deserves further study.

At a surface level, Alvarez is unremarkable. He swings at 30.7% of pitches outside the zone and 63.4% of pitches in the zone — both slightly lower than league average. He makes roughly average contact — his 76.2% career rate exactly matches the 2019 league average, probably the best sample to compare him to given his brief 2020 season. Combine those, and you get a better-than-average swinging strike rate, but nothing outlandish.

Beneath that unassuming facade lies something remarkable. The broad delineation between in and out of the strike zone isn’t a foolproof way of describing plate discipline. For example, take a look at this take:

Here’s another:

The second take is pretty clearly better than the first. In a 2-0 count, swinging at that pitch would likely be a mistake. Living to fight another day is a good decision. The first one is exactly what Alvarez is looking for: a middle-high pitch that he can elevate. Letting that go is a mistake. Let’s refine our definitions.

Alvarez is huge — 6-foot-5 with long arms. He gets to his power by extending his arms and turning on the ball. With the usual small-sample caveats, look at where he’s done the most damage on contact in his career so far:

Low and inside? That’s enough space for him to get his arms around. Middle and away are acceptable too, as long as they’re up in the zone — you can disregard how bright red the upper left-hand corner is, because it’s largely driven by one homer, but he really does get to a lot of power when he gets his arms out. Also, that homer looked pretty cool:

His weak spots? Up and in is an obvious one, and that makes sense for someone with a swing like his. His lightning-fast hands let him turn on the low ones, but it’s simply too hard to execute that swing when the pitch is high and tight — there’s no room for the bat to get around to the ball. Low and away works too, as it so often does. Alvarez had exactly one homer in that quadrant, and it was a product of the Crawford boxes:

For Alvarez, then, the strike zone isn’t all equal. Anything outside of those two weak points is a pitch that he might be able to drive. Accordingly, I isolated those sections to look at how he dealt with them. Here’s a heatmap of the pitches that I selected — tough-to-handle pitches on the periphery of the strike zone. I used only 0-0, 0-1, 1-0, 1-1, and 2-1 counts, where Alvarez could afford to take a strike but wasn’t likely to be taking all the way:

He took 60% of those pitches. He took 56% of the ones that were in the strike zone! That shows up as a “bad decision” if you only look at his in-zone swing rate, but it’s pretty clearly not. If you throw Alvarez something he can’t deal with, hey, good pitch. He’s going to make you do it again a lot of the time.

Leave it anywhere else in the strike zone, and he only took the pitch 42% of the time. In his hottest hot spots, that number dipped to 38%. In other words, he was hunting his pitches, then swinging when he got them.

It’s difficult to discern which pitch types Alvarez likes to hit most, because he’s above average against pretty much all of them. We can make an educated guess, though. He whiffed on 35% of breaking balls he swung at, 34% of offspeed pitches, and 17% of fastballs. That’s all roughly normal — he misses less often against fastballs and more often against bendy stuff than the league, but not by much.

But wait! That’s too simplistic. Many of those swings came in counts where Alvarez had to defend the zone, or on curveballs bounced six inches in front of home plate. When Alvarez swung at any kind of secondary pitch when two conditions were met — the same counts I looked at above and a pitch in the strike zone — he whiffed only 18.8% of the time. When it was a fastball, he came up empty 18.2% of the time, virtually identical. He also did tremendous damage when he connected with either — he compiled a .632 wOBA and .473 xwOBA against secondary pitches, as compared to a .475 wOBA and .548 xwOBA against fastballs.

Accordingly, you’d expect him to swing at a roughly equal rate against both broad classifications of pitch. What did he actually do? Swung at 56.7% of secondaries and 53.5% of fastballs. In other words, he was an equal opportunity hitter, which exactly fits his profile. You can’t do much better in terms of making your swings match your strengths.

That’s not to say that there’s no room for improvement. Alvarez takes a lot of the pitches he can’t do anything with, but he could always swing even less often there. Paradoxically, he probably makes too much contact when he swings at them. He’s put 34 of these tough-location pitches into play, and the results aren’t pretty: a .265 batting average, .272 wOBA (.318 xwOBA), and that one solitary golfed home run. Connect less often there, and his overall line would improve even as his contact rate dipped.

Has there been a lot of word soup in this article? You bet. Let’s redirect to my main point to conclude, though, because even though this isn’t a five-paragraph essay, I’m using the plan Ms. Yoakley gave me in high school: tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them.

Yordan Alvarez has the kind of power you dream about as a kid, but that isn’t what sets him apart. He has game power — the ability to sift through pitchers’ offerings and focus on the ones he can do the most with. It’s driven by his batting eye, and it makes the rest of his already-prodigious skills play up. It’s no accident that he projects to be one of the best hitters in baseball, even if he hasn’t had much chance to show us what he can do at the major league level yet.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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Bob Andersonmember
3 years ago

How much are you worried about the knees?

3 years ago
Reply to  Bob Anderson

That’s the real issue.

3 years ago
Reply to  Bob Anderson

He doesn’t hit with his knees. I know that is an oversimplification, but I feel like people are making way too big a deal out of it. The fact that he is working out at first shows that they have faith in his knees.

3 years ago
Reply to  carter

Most hitters do, in fact, use their legs! His ability to stay healthy is the question. No one has forgotten he can hit. Since he came up as an OF, moving him to first isn’t a vote of confidence

3 years ago
Reply to  pepper69fun

Keep in mind that all of this production in 2019 came on terrible knees. I think the surgery will help him play at a higher level physically. Probably not statistically, but physically

3 years ago
Reply to  pepper69fun

I will be that he plays outfield this year as well. And yes, of course I realize you use your legs to hit. I am saying that he had these problems before and still hit, so there isn’t really any reason to think he will be worse.

3 years ago
Reply to  carter

I am pulling for you to be right. Big guys with bad knees don’t normally get fixed permanently