What does ZiPS have for Yordan Alvarez’s translation?
Is Alvarez for real?
Do the Astros need to call up Alvarez right now?
Scattered within my weekly chat questions about cat and chili, there were quite a few questions revolving on Yordan Alvarez, who has spent the first two months of the 2019 season traumatizing minor league pitchers. So naturally, instead of answering the questions, I greedily saved the Alvarez talk for an article on the subject.
Prior to this season, Alvarez was ranked seventh in Houston’s farm system by Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel on the strength of his raw power potential. Ranking seventh on the Astros says more about the team’s organizational strength than any negative about Alvarez; he’s not someone who would appear in a Fringe Five column. While with a lot of minor league outfielders, you try to see if they can stick in center as long as possible, this was never a realistic option for Alvarez, who is cut from the massive slugger template.
But if you thought he was a one-dimensional type of hitter, a Pedro Cerrano type, you’d be wrong. While it’s not believed that he’ll maintain high batting averages in the majors, I think he might hang onto better averages than many think. For one, he has an efficient, easy swing and is willing to use the entire field, making him less likely to be subject to shift abuse than some other sluggers in the majors. Just to illustrate, here’s Alvarez’s spray chart in the minors in 2019 compared to Max Kepler, a more pull-heavy left-handed hitter.
Alvarez has kept his swinging strike rate under 10% in the high minors, and in the early going, he has cut off about a quarter of his 2018 strikeout rate. His walk rate has also edged higher; Alvarez is a hitter who eats what he hunts. ZiPS uses play-by-play data to estimate a version of xBABIP that I refer to as zBABIP (you don’t win the Kewpie doll for guessing what the z stands for). Alvarez won’t keep the .424 BABIP that’s currently driving his .400 batting average in the minors, of course, but the hit data suggests he may keep quite a lot of it.
He’s hit a lot of home runs — 18 as I write this on Tuesday evening — but he’s hit nearly as many doubles, enough to result in a juicy isolated power north of .450. That he’s actually hitting minor leaguers as you would expect a .400 BABIP hitter to do (something which doesn’t even exist in the majors) largely suggests a batter that’s not being properly challenged at his level of play. Alvarez’s 31.6% line drive rate leads all qualified Triple-A hitters.
I went through all of Alvarez’s home runs to find a couple of the more interesting ones and then GIFified my two favorites. For the first one, an opposite-field shot, what strikes me is just how very casual it all appeared to be, as if he was casually smoking a cigar while knocking a 90-yarder onto the green with a pitching wedge.
For the second one, I wanted to find one in Alvarez’s wheelhouse. Back in January, Jeff Quattrociocchi wrote about estimating minor league home run distance from MiLB hit coordinates. Using this estimate, fully half of Alvarez’s 18 home runs have gone at least 400 feet, with three over the 450-foot mark. The longest one, at an estimated 467 feet, was this monster that was intercepted by the sign for a concession serving delicious beverages of an alcoholic nature.
So what does this all mean from a projection standpoint? Coming into the season, ZiPS projected Alvarez at .255/.315/.440, 107 wRC+, 1.0 WAR in 425 projected plate appearances (remember, ZiPS is agnostic on who teams choose to play in the majors). There were some real questions about Alvarez past his defense coming into the season. He still had limited time in the high minors, and thanks to a hand injury in 2018, still has not played 100 games in a minor league season. His Triple-A performance in 2018 was sub-scintillating, and ZiPS translated his two full minor-league years at .255/.308/.387 and .256/.319/.448.
For 2019, which includes adjustments for the increased offense in the minor leagues, ZiPS translates Alvarez’s 40 games in 2019 at .342/.420/.626 with 10 home runs. That’s… uh… good. That’s not a projection, of course, but a translation of a small slice of past play. But good news, I’ve got one of those projection dealies!
|Rest of 2019||.267||.333||.483||288||43||77||15||15||46||29||82||4||123||-2||1.7|
That’s quite a shift, and ZiPS is not alone in its exuberance. Steamer has moved up 95 points of OPS from its preseason estimation as well. Simply put, there were some questions about Alvarez coming into 2019, and he’s answered them just as well as anybody possibly could in two months. In the eyes of ZiPS, Alvarez is now an equivalent offensive prospect to Eloy Jimenez after 2018.
The Houston Astros have a lot of questions about their rotation long-term thanks to past and future departures from their World Series roster. But with Yordan Alvarez’s breakout 2019, Kyle Tucker, and still some hope for Derek Fisher, the team will be able to absorb some losses in the outfield.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.