Yordan Alvarez Out for the Season

The Houston Astros took another hit Wednesday afternoon with the news that young slugger Yordan Alvarez, last year’s unanimous American League Rookie of the Year, would miss the rest of the 2020 season due to knee surgery. For the Astros, winners of 107 games in 2019, it represents the latest downgrade to the roster that was just one win away from winning the World Series last October. For Alvarez, it means a lot of pain, physical therapy, and a lost opportunity to consolidate some of his phenomenal gains as an offensive force over the previous 18 months.

Knee problems are sadly not new for Alvarez; even in March, there was a very real chance that he’d miss what was then Opening Day due to his knees. His bread-and-butter will always be making baseballs travel a very long distance, but he’s also surprisingly quick for a man his size. Despite what the massive slugger trope suggests, Alvarez’s sprint speed during his rookie season was measured by Statcast as 26.8 feet per second, just below the league average of 27. That burst of agility is rightly not used to steal bases, but it was enough to give the Astros the flexibility to occasionally use him in the outfield.

The hope had been that the season’s start date being pushed back from late March to late July would allow sufficient time for Alvarez to heal from his knee problems. But further complicating matters was a case of COVID-19, officially revealed last Friday after a couple weeks of the usual-for-2020 speculation surrounding a player missing time due to “undisclosed” reasons.

His first official at-bat of 2020 was a fun one, showing off the power that helped him force his way onto the 2019 roster earlier than the team expected. The home run off an ill-chosen pitch from Nestor Cortes wasn’t a monster shot in terms of velocity or distance, but like many of Alvarez’s oppo tacos, it looked like an almost-casual flick of the bat.

Sadly, Alvarez’s first home run of 2020 was also his last of the season.

In the short-term, the slugger’s absence simplifies the Astros’ attempts to fit all of their intriguing bats into the lineup. Michael Brantley can be activated from the Injured List as soon as Saturday, and after suffering leg problems of his own this season, he can now slot in as the designated hitter in place of Alvarez. That arrangement is unlikely to last past Brantley’s return to good health as he’s reportedly not crazy about the idea of not playing the field, leaving the team likely to use some mix of Kyle Tucker, Abraham Toro, Taylor Jones, and banged-up starters at the position.

That last sentence is the crux of the problem for Houston. While the team is hardly lacking for offense, currently ranking third in the AL in runs scored, the loss of Alvarez is an extra limit on its offensive upside. The 2019 Astros were a phenomenally talented roster, but they’ve lost Gerrit Cole to free agency, and in addition to Alvarez, are also down Justin Verlander, Roberto Osuna, Jose Urquidy, Brad Peacock, and Aledmys Díaz (along with a few others) due to injury, and not all of those players are expected to return this season.

That presents the team with a problem, at least in terms of winning another division crown. This season is a sprint and unlike last year, Houston hasn’t spent August casually sitting on a comfortable AL West lead. The Oakland A’s, who have the AL’s best record at 17-8, enjoy a 2 1/2 game advantage as play begins on Thursday. Coming into 2020, ZiPS had the Astros as the AL West favorite, with a 43.9% chance at winning the division. With Alvarez’s season over, the ZiPS divisional probability for Houston drops from 34% to 30%, edging Oakland over the two-to-one favorite line.

And it isn’t just ZiPS saying this. Per the FanGraphs Playoff Odds, only the Texas Rangers have seen their rest-of-season strength decline more significantly than the Astros:

FanGraphs ROS W% Now vs. Opening Day
Team Current ROS W% Preseason ROS W% Difference
Texas Rangers .435 .473 -0.038
Houston Astros .557 .594 -0.037
Washington Nationals .523 .545 -0.022
Pittsburgh Pirates .407 .427 -0.020
Boston Red Sox .502 .519 -0.017
Detroit Tigers .404 .417 -0.013
Minnesota Twins .555 .567 -0.012
Toronto Blue Jays .452 .463 -0.011
Tampa Bay Rays .561 .564 -0.003
Miami Marlins .409 .411 -0.002
Los Angeles Dodgers .602 .604 -0.002
New York Yankees .582 .583 -0.001
Los Angeles Angels .506 .506 0.000
Atlanta Braves .537 .537 0.000
Colorado Rockies .461 .461 0.000
Oakland Athletics .536 .535 0.001
St. Louis Cardinals .513 .512 0.001
Cleveland Indians .544 .541 0.003
Kansas City Royals .440 .437 0.003
Chicago White Sox .522 .516 0.006
Chicago Cubs .543 .535 0.008
Arizona Diamondbacks .500 .491 0.009
Milwaukee Brewers .537 .525 0.012
Seattle Mariners .404 .389 0.015
San Diego Padres .542 .526 0.016
New York Mets .547 .530 0.017
Cincinnati Reds .542 .523 0.019
Baltimore Orioles .378 .352 0.026
Philadelphia Phillies .528 .497 0.031
San Francisco Giants .461 .421 0.040

In a late-breaking additional story, Alex Bregman’s sore hamstring that caused him to be pulled from Wednesday’s game and initially reported as day-to-day soreness will now land him on the Injured List.

Assuming two weeks of lost time for Bregman, more than a third of what is remaining in the 2020 season, this further drops the ZiPS divisional probability for Houston from 30% to 28%. Abraham Toro replaced Bregman at third against the Rockies and will likely be the primary, though not exclusive, replacement for last year’s runner-up in the AL MVP race.

The silver lining for the Astros is that when it comes to winning the World Series, winning the division isn’t as important as it has been in recent seasons. The 16-team playoff format gives a much smaller bonus for higher-seeded teams than the “normal” postseason format. No home field advantage perks can make up for avoiding the Wild Card round, which one may as well call the coin flip round. Still, Houston and the team’s fans ought to be concerned that the team’s margin for error keeps shrinking.

At the start of the season, participating in a significant deadline trade seemed unlikely unless a significant starting pitcher became available, but now the team has another reason to be active. The Astros team that won the 2017 World Series could reasonably look forward to several more playoff appearances. The 2020 team, on the other hand, has already lost some key contributors, and with Brantley, Yuli Gurriel, Peacock, Josh Reddick, and George Springer, all free agent after this season, and Carlos Correa, Zack Greinke, and Verlander hitting the market after 2021, it could lose a few more. The injury to Yordan Alvarez has added another reason for the team to embrace urgency.





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.

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Joe Joe
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Joe Joe

Bregman to the IL as well. Astros FG Depth Charts has the Astros as the 3rd best offense, still. Astros biggest concern is likely pitching even with the young arms doing well.