Over the past few years, the Houston Astros’ offense has embodied a particular kind of greatness: high-scoring, but clinical and consistent more than explosive. Opposing pitchers don’t suffer knockout blows so much as death by a thousand cuts … well, not small cuts, more like medium-sized cuts. Rather than table-setters and run producers, every Astro could put the ball in play and hit for at least some power. At its best, Houston’s lineup has a nominal top, middle, and bottom, and turns over as endlessly as Journey’s wheel in the sky, with offensive production as never-ending as Olive Garden’s pasta bowl. Since their return to the playoffs in 2015, 10 different Astros have posted at least one 20-homer season, but no individual Astro has hit more than 34 home runs in a year. In the title-winning 2017 season, Houston’s egalitarian offense combined production and efficiency as the Astros led MLB in scoring and finished a close second in home runs, but struck out less than any other club in baseball.
It’s all the more impressive that the Astros have gone so long scoring like a Big 12 football team without a traditional middle-of-the-order slugger. Their best players are well-rounded up-the-middle guys who, because they can all get on base and hit for at least some power, sit anywhere in the lineup. Their leading home run hitter, George Springer, bats leadoff. The Astros have so many good hitters they can prioritize getting Springer more at-bats, even with the bases empty at the start of the game, while relying on others to pick up the slack down the order. And when the Astros go outside the organization for established veteran hitters to fill out the corner spots, they prefer multidimensional players like Yuli Gurriel, Josh Reddick, and Michael Brantley, not Nelson Cruz or other bat-first DH types.
The Astros have had no problem scoring runs without a David Ortiz-style DH in the middle of the order, but they’ve got one now in 22-year-old Yordan Álvarez. In his first 54 MLB games, 45 of them at DH, Álvarez has hit .333/.417/.697 with 19 home runs and 16 doubles. That’s an outrageous batting line; the last player to hit at least .330/.400/.675 for a full season was Barry Bonds.
Álvarez emerged from the minor leagues two months ago and now leads all MLB hitters in wRC+ (minimum 200 plate appearances). And by “emerged,” I mean like the Parícutin volcano, which formed in southern Mexico in 1943. A farmer was working his cornfield one afternoon when the ground opened up with the smell of sulfur, and started spewing ash into the sky. In a matter of days the volcano grew to more than 100 meters in height.
Álvarez isn’t quite that big, though next to the diminutive José Altuve and Alex Bregman, Álvarez’s 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame seems like it. This clip from Álvarez’s three-homer game in Baltimore earlier this month is worth watching not just because of how squarely Álvarez tees up the ball, or the fans scurrying in terror on Eutaw Street, or Todd Kalas’s ecstatic call, but because of how high Bregman has to jump to give Álvarez his celebratory forearm bash.
Size isn’t the only thing that separates Álvarez from his teammates. Like Parícutin, Álvarez is large and launches particles into the air, but he also appeared rather unexpectedly, in contrast to high draft picks like Springer, Bregman, and Carlos Correa. (Altuve was even less hyped as a prospect than Álvarez, but Altuve also made his first All-Star team in 2012, so long ago the Astros were in the National League at the time.)
Álvarez came to the United States a veteran of Cuba’s Serie Nacional, where he hit .351/.402/.387 in limited action as a 17-year-old, and he commanded a sizable $2 million signing bonus from the Dodgers in June 2016 just before he turned 19.
But Álvarez had yet to fill out, had yet to prove himself against even low-level professional pitching in the United States, and had yet to develop his power stroke. Evaluators worried (quite reasonably, it turns out) that by the time he was old enough to play in the majors he’d be limited to DH, first base, and left field in a pinch. Mere weeks after signing Álvarez, the Dodgers shipped him off to the Astros—who’d also pursued the young Cuban—for reliever Josh Fields.
Álvarez never played a competitive game in Los Angeles’s minor league system, and didn’t even come to the United States until the 2017 season. It took him another year to break in to any—but not all—major top-100 prospect lists. The two outlets that were highest on him heading into 2018—FanGraphs and ESPN—both had him in the 40s for that year but outside the top 100 in 2019, while MLB Pipeline and Baseball Prospectus didn’t rank Álvarez in the top 100 in 2018 but had him in the 40s this past winter.
A power hitter who profiles defensively at first base or DH is a huge risk, because players who live and die with their power stroke have zero developmental room for error. And for every Pete Alonso who makes good on that potential and becomes an All-Star right off the bat, there are dozens of similar prospects who turn into part-time first basemen or don’t make the majors at all. The Astros experienced the downside of this prospect archetype firsthand when 2014 second-round pick AJ Reed, the SEC home run leader and Houston’s presumptive DH of the future, hit just .153/.253/.244 in parts of three seasons before he was waived this summer. It’s therefore understandable that Álvarez was so polarizing essentially up until the moment of his debut.
In his first big league action, the factors that made Álvarez a risky prospect haven’t gone away. With Gurriel, Reddick, and Brantley in the fold (to say nothing of Springer, who plays right field when Jake Marisnick starts in center), Houston has superior defensive options at every position Álvarez can play. But when he has needed to break out his glove—for just 50 innings in left field so far—Álvarez has been ungainly and slow. He’s also struck out 24.6 percent of the time, which would be in the top quartile of MLB hitters if he had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title.
On the other hand, Álvarez is walking in 12.1 percent of his plate appearances, more than Joey Votto, and homering in another 8.2 percent of his plate appearances. It’s possible to be a bad player with a .400 OBP, but of the 711 qualified hitters since integration who have posted an OBP that high, only five have been below-average players for the season, according to Baseball-Reference. And if a hitter’s slugging .697, as Álvarez is, he doesn’t even need to own a glove to be a star-level player overall.
While Álvarez will never be as good at getting the bat on the ball as Altuve or Bregman, and despite a high strikeout rate driven by pedestrian bat control, Álvarez recognizes breaking pitches well and has a good feel for the strike zone; the rookie has faced 17 3-0 counts in his career, in which he’s drawn 15 walks and hit two home runs for a literally perfect 1.000/1.000/4.000 slash line. When Álvarez does make contact he gets his money’s worth, and he has the third-highest barrel rate among hitters with at least 50 batted ball events, according to Baseball Savant.
That much is fairly obvious from the shape of his home runs. Some are screaming, curling line drives down the right-field line—the kind of tennis shot Rafael Nadal would hit if he were 19 feet tall. Others are high-trajectory, opposite-field moon shots when Álvarez pops the ball up so high the Earth rotates underneath it until it finally comes down on the other side of the fence, or sometimes on the train tracks at Minute Maid Park.
Onto the train tracks.— MLB (@MLB) June 15, 2019
Yordan has some STUPID power. pic.twitter.com/SwB8UYRnUR
A decade ago, Ortiz used to hit home runs like that, and all signs point to Álvarez maturing into that kind of hitter, even if and when he cools off a little from this magma-hot start. Any comparison to Ortiz in particular will invite questions about Álvarez’s ability to hold up to the increased pressure and competition of the postseason, but we won’t have to wait long to find out.
Not only are the Astros eight games up in the AL West and a virtual lock to make the playoffs, Álvarez will have a major say in how long Houston’s postseason lasts. Despite his inexperience, Álvarez hits in the middle of the order when he is in the lineup. He’s started 52 games in his MLB career, 51 of them as either the third, fourth, or fifth hitter in Houston’s formidable lineup. Manager A.J. Hinch clearly already trusts Álvarez to be a key cog in the best offense in baseball by wRC+. In a loaded AL playoff bracket, any extra firepower helps, but Álvarez is more than that. The Astros have always had strength in their depth, but Álvarez gives them a measure of strength on his own. He’s a titanic middle-of-the-order slugger who must be planned for and perhaps pitched around. Houston’s conga line has its biggest drum yet.