In the bottom of the eighth inning of ALCS Game 6, the Astros loaded the bases with two outs, a two-run lead, and Yordan Álvarez due up. But Álvarez, the Astros’ rookie sensation, didn’t bat. Pinch-hitter Aledmys Díaz did.
On the surface, this was a standard matchup move. Zach Britton, a tough lefty, was pitching. Álvarez is a left-handed hitter, and Díaz, a right-handed hitter, had the platoon advantage. Considering the players involved, though, this was anything but a routine tactic.
Álvarez is a few weeks away from being named AL Rookie of the Year, thanks to his .313/.412/.655 slash line and 27 home runs in 369 MLB plate appearances (which followed a .343/.443/.742 line with 23 homers in 253 Triple-A PA). He homered on the day he debuted, June 9, and between that first game and the end of the regular season, he ranked 11th in position player WAR, which is hard to do when you’re playing primarily DH. His 178 wRC+ over that same span surpassed Mike Trout’s, putting him behind only Ketel Marte, Alex Bregman, and Nelson Cruz among hitters with at least 100 plate appearances. There was nothing unearned about those numbers: Álvarez placed in the 95th percentile in hard-hit rate and average exit velocity, and in the 98th percentile in expected wOBA. Nor did he have trouble against lefties, against whom he produced a 171 wRC+, which topped Cody Bellinger’s performance by more than 20 points for the best left-on-left mark (minimum 100 PA versus southpaws).
Unsurprisingly, the Astros hadn’t pinch hit for Álvarez all season until that postseason scenario. Díaz hasn’t been good against southpaws (89 career wRC+, 102 in 2019), and a few weeks ago, no one would have envisioned the Astros opting for him over Álvarez in a crucial situation. And the indignity of being pinch hit for wasn’t the only first for Álvarez in the ALCS. He was bumped down to sixth in the batting order in Game 3, and then seventh in Game 5. Álvarez had batted sixth only once all season, in July, and he’d never before batted seventh.
The impetus for these ALCS affronts was obvious: Álvarez had a disastrous series, going 1-for-22 with 12 strikeouts and two walks in 24 plate appearances. In the ALDS, he hit .316/.350/.474, with three doubles, which was good enough for him to start the ALCS in his customary spot in the lineup. Even then, though, there were cracks in the foundation: Álvarez struck out seven times and walked only once in 20 plate appearances. Only one of the doubles was actually launched like a double, and one of his singles was largely a product of Tampa Bay’s positioning. Between his fourth-inning double in ALDS Game 4 and the end of the ALCS, he went 1-for-27 with 15 strikeouts. Entering the World Series, no hitter in this year’s playoff field had a lower postseason championship win probability added than Álvarez, and from a game-level-WPA perspective, three of the Astros’ five most costly plate appearances this postseason were Álvarez double plays or strikeouts.
After two post-ALCS off days, Álvarez started the World Series on a slightly more positive note. Still stuck in the seventh slot, he went 2-for-3 with a walk, although the two hits were both singles (one softly hit) and the out was a three-pitch swinging strikeout with the bases loaded, easily the costliest play in the Astros’ 5-4 loss and, thus far, in their entire October run. Maybe those singles signaled the beginning of a restorative hot streak. For much of this month, though, one of the Astros lineup’s biggest strengths has been its biggest liability.
The entire postseason constitutes a pretty small sample, and a distorted one at that: Talented pitchers and fielders, diligent advance scouting, lower temperatures, and, this year, a de-juiced ball have all conspired to suppress offense. The entire Astros roster aside from Álvarez batted .212/.294/.372 through the first two playoff rounds, with only José Altuve hitting at or above his habitual level. (Both the Rays and the Yankees posted higher OPS marks than the Astros in their losing efforts.) But for Álvarez, who struck out in 25.5 percent of his regular-season plate appearances, a 50 percent K rate over a span of 30 PA is highly abnormal, and without precedent during the regular season. Although he’s still capable of generating force—the single he smacked in ALDS Game 2 was his second-hardest-hit ball of the season—Álvarez’s average exit velocity in the postseason prior to the World Series was down 3.2 mph from his regular-season baseline, and his expected wOBA (.217) was roughly as low as his actual wOBA (.211). He hasn’t been unlucky; he’s been bad.
The most compelling evidence that Álvarez isn’t himself—even more persuasive than the stats—is how Houston has handled him. The Astros aren’t a team that overreacts to small samples, and clubs have access to more granular data than we do, so the fact they’ve busted him down to the bottom third of the lineup and pinch hit for him in a high-leverage spot says something in and of itself. It’s not as if the Astros can’t win without Yordan; they went 44-22 prior to his promotion. But Álvarez’s arrival elevated their lineup into a modern murderers’ row.
So what could be ailing Álvarez? One likely culprit is fatigue. World Series Game 1 was the 22-year-old Álvarez’s 155th game of the season. Wrist injuries and a knee injury have kept him from nearing that neighborhood before: His previous single-season high was 90 games, and last year he played only 88. DHing part of the time in Triple-A and most of the time in the majors this year may have helped him stay fresh, but he’s far past his previous endurance record, and September was his worst pre-playoffs month. The postseason swoon may have started a week earlier: Álvarez went hitless in his last 17 plate appearances of the regular season, with nine strikeouts, and that was against Mariners and Angels pitching.
As easy as Álvarez made things look up until that point, rocketing from Round Rock to the best team in baseball and then being whisked into the postseason spotlight has to add some extra stress. The Astros might know that he’s nursing a nagging injury or simply slowing down, whether through data from their high-tech array of cameras and sensors, observations from coaches or training staff, or feedback from Álvarez himself.
Another possibility: an onslaught of same-sided arms. During the regular season, Álvarez faced southpaws in 35.5 percent of his plate appearances. In the postseason so far, that rate is up to 45.8 percent. Álvarez has held his own against lefties going back to 2017, and this year he even struck out less often against them than he did against righties. But that three-season sample amounts to about 400 combined plate appearances against lefties, which is fewer than half the number one would need for his observed split to reflect his true talent. And only a fraction of those opportunities came against big league arms. Odds are Álvarez is less disadvantaged against left-handed pitchers than the typical left-handed hitter, but a steadier diet of southpaws still can’t have helped.
It may be that Álvarez is more vulnerable to the type of pitching that becomes common in October. During the regular season, Álvarez feasted on average and finesse pitchers but struggled against power pitchers, as classified by Baseball-Reference: His .792 OPS against that third group was only 51 percent as high as his overall mark. The average hitter was 85 percent as good against power pitchers as he was overall, so Álvarez suffered a steeper decline than normal—38th steepest, in fact, among the 291 hitters with at least 60 plate appearances against power pitchers.
Power pitchers abound in October, which would be a problem if he were especially susceptible to their stuff, but Álvarez made only 62 plate appearances against them during the regular season, so that apparent weakness may well be noise. The average fastball he’s faced this month has been about 2 mph harder than the average heater he faced prior to October, and he’s seen many more four-seamers (46.6 percent, up from 35.1 percent). He didn’t have a hard time with that pitch for most of the season—the only pitch he didn’t clobber was the curve, and he hasn’t seen many more of those than usual in October, though he may against Stephen Strasburg in Game 2—and relative to the league, he didn’t seem to suffer disproportionately against fastballs 95 and up.
The explanation probably isn’t that he can’t catch up to good heat—or, at least, it wouldn’t be, unless fatigue is sapping his bat speed. If there is a game plan that the Rays and Yankees followed—and that Daniel Hudson employed to great effect in World Series Game 1—it was staying away from the places where he pulls pitches in the air, which is how he does much of his damage. Here’s where fastballs to Álvarez produced the most valuable pulled balls in the air during the regular season: low and in.
And here’s where he saw fastballs during the ALDS and ALCS: up and away.
Or, in GIF form, this is good:
But this is bad:
.135 WPA on that strikeout for Daniel Hudson, which makes it the game’s third-biggest play. What a huge K. pic.twitter.com/NMxU7zI08t— Max Wildstein (@MaxWildstein) October 23, 2019
Álvarez isn’t a hacker, but he isn’t ultra-selective like Bregman; his 28.7 percent regular-season chase rate, according to Game Day’s definition of the strike zone, was right around league average. He walked so frequently during the regular season in part because pitchers respected his power enough to stay away from the plate, throwing him pitches in the strike zone at one of the league’s lowest rates. In the first two rounds, though, his chase rate rose to 35.4 percent, although he was facing pitchers who made it harder to hold up.
When the World Series heads to D.C. and drops the DH, we’ll get another indication of how Houston is feeling about its big slugger. If Álvarez were raking, the Astros would be tempted to play him in left field despite his defensive limitations. With his performance at the plate in question, though, the team is likely to opt for the better glove and the platoon advantage with the left-handed Patrick Corbin going in Game 3. The Astros may also start lefty Kyle Tucker against the Nats’ right-handed starters in games 4 and 5. It’s possible that the series will be decided with one of the best rookie hitters ever on the sideline.
Although research has shown that prior postseason experience doesn’t help players in October, a perception exists that rookie phenoms are liable to be exposed by playoff pitching and scouting. When a young star struggles in the postseason, we tend to believe it’s because the league discovered his kryptonite, but veterans have awful Octobers, too: Just ask 1-for-23 Kurt Suzuki, or A.J. Pollock, who went 0-for-13 with 11 strikeouts in the NLDS. If opposing pitchers have figured Álvarez out, though, he’s more than capable of countering, like Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger before him.
In all likelihood, this is nothing more than a few ugly weeks, made more glaring both by the brightness of the stage and by Álvarez’s regular-season brilliance. He sprung fully formed from the minors as one of the best hitters in baseball, so it’s strange to see him struggle. From the Astros’ perspective, he picked a terrible time for his first slump, but one well-timed hit in the coming week could still salvage his postseason. If that hit doesn’t happen, a winter’s rest will likely set him right. But the winter won’t be warmed by the afterglow of victory if the Astros’ other hitters can’t fill his huge shoes.