MLB Playoffs – How Yordan Alvarez drove the Astros to ALCS

As the Houston Astros began spring training in 2019, Michael Brantley couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Brantley is considered one of the purest professional racquets of his generation, a left fielder whose racquet control and swing decisions had convinced the team to squander $16 million a year on him at free hand. That day, a 22-year-old left fielder/designated hitter named Yordan Álvarez, who split between AA and AAA last season, put on a show in batting practice. After a swing, Brantley pulled Álvarez aside.

“I asked him his name, I asked him what position he played and I asked him why they signed me,” Brantley said. “I did not understand.”

Even back before Álvarez stormed into the big leagues and became American League Rookie of the Year in mid-2019, before he made a habit of looking unstoppable in postseason streaks before establishing himself as arguably the game’s best left-hander and undeniably one his best bat periods, Brantley knew. It took an entire BP session to realize what the New York Yankees pitchers understood in this American League Championship Series: Álvarez is the Astros’ answer to Aaron Judge — an extremely talented Leviathan, the kind of player that a team can lead to a championship.

He hit the ball harder than everyone else except Judge that season, on average, and was the only offensive player in his universe. After winning the ALCS MVP honors last season, Álvarez is ready for a repeat against the Yankees and ready to do what he didn’t do in the last postseason matchup against New York when he was a rookie in the ALCS won 1 to 22.

Yordan Álvarez’s many exploits, which have already become the stuff of legend in Houston, would strain credibility if the ubiquity of video and the ball-tracking systems installed in every major league stadium didn’t back it up — or if his teammates did I don’t like telling stories that much.

Here’s second baseman Jose Altuve’s entry: In his second major league at-bat against then-Baltimore starter Dylan Bundy, Álvarez took a second pitch change, deep and on the outside half of the plate, and laid it 413 feet away from opposite field. Astros players stirred on the bench. Álvarez had hit 23 home runs in AAA, but this showed he could do more than let his 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame drive balls over the fence.

“We asked him, ‘Changeup, to left-center?'” Altuve said. “Usually when you’re a beginner you pull these. You just pull anything. And he said, ‘Yeah, I watched a video the night before and the guy is throwing loose change inside after a fastball.’ As a newbie – that was like, oh god, this is your first homer and you think so already? His approach is so good.

First base that day was Trey Mancini, who Baltimore traded to Houston before the July deadline. After Álvarez rounded bases with his first homer, Mancini turned to Don Kelly, then Astros first base coach, and said, “Who is this guy?” Kelly replied, “He’s going to be a stud.”

“It’s just such an easy swing,” Mancini said. “It’s the same swing every time. He doesn’t lose his poise very often. He gets everything he has, but it’s easy at the same time. It’s a nice swing. I’m very jealous of it. I would love to have a swing like that.”

The Astros certainly liked the swing when they pulled off one of the biggest deadline moves of all time — they bought it from the Los Angeles Dodgers in a deal for Josh Fields just six weeks after Álvarez signed after fleeing Cuba. But Houston’s front office never imagined Álvarez would be like this: 25 years old, with a career line of .296/.384/.590. His numbers are even better this season: .306/.406/.613 with 37 home runs and 97 RBIs in 135 games alongside a 13.9% walk rate (seventh in the major leagues) and a strikeout rate that’s under 20 % has fallen for the first time this season.

“The most impressive thing about him is that it doesn’t matter which part of the field he’s in,” said Ryne Stanek, Astros representative. “No matter where you go. It has power from pole to pole – real power. As young as he is and as disciplined as he is, that’s the really scary part of his game.

“I had never really met him until my first spring training session here last year. And I faced him here at my very first live (batting practice). It was early spring. Velo is still building. So I was like, alright, well, I know he’s obviously really good. I don’t want to throw him a bad fastball and lose face. I’ll throw him some splits….not realizing he’s just absolutely killing Wechsel.

“Got him on first foulball. The second was like, f…yeah, I’ll throw another one. Rocket. It’s not normal…I was like, oh damn this guy, he’s different.”

The Seattle Mariners were the latest team to creep out a series against Álvarez. In Game 1 of their Division Series against the Astros, he hit a Robbie Ray fastball 438 feet for the first postseason come-from-behind walk-off home run since Joe Carter won the 1993 World Series. The next day, with Mariners starter Luis Castillo underway, Álvarez chased a 99-mph sinker that ran 19 inches – starting at the inside corner and moving outside the strike zone – and drove it into Minute Maid Park’s Crawford left boxes for another homer.

After the game, Stanek and Astros were closer to Ryan Pressly in the training room watching the replay. Even after years of watching Álvarez turn the impossible into reality, Pressly was still amazed. As? How could he possibly homer on a field with this speed, with this type of movement, in this place? Stanek’s answer: “Don’t ask questions. Just let it happen.”

“Sometimes you get around hitters who, according to the scouting report, are just trying to get them to hit singles,” said James Click, Astros general manager. “And I think he’s getting into that territory. I remember being on the other side of him in 2019 when we came here with Tampa trying to figure out how to approach him. And you just threw your hands up in the air because there’s no obvious way to do it. Almost every hitter in the big leagues, there’s something – there’s a hole in, there’s a hole out, there’s a hole up, there’s a hole down, there’s a hole soft, there’s a hole hard, there’s a hole on the left, there’s a hole on the right. And he just doesn’t have it.”

Oakland pitcher Adrian Martinez found out on September 16th. In his first at-bat, Alvarez hit a 95.1-mile sinker into midfield from 434 feet. The next time around, Martínez opted for a substitution – which Álvarez hit again with 431 feet down the middle. The third time, Martínez went back to fastball.

“And on the first pitch he hits some poor guys who are trying to have a nice dinner in midfield 460 feet away without even thinking a baseball was going to hit them,” Click said. “It landed on her desk. It was at that center field restaurant out there. They showed the video of these guys out there sitting around one of these silver high tables and they realized there was a baseball coming their way that had absolutely no business that far from home plate.”

Álvarez came on the plate again in the seventh inning.

“On the fourth at-bat, he hit a single and everyone was pissed,” said Astros third baseman Alex Bregman. “And he hit that one 120 [mph].”

It was actually 109.3 mph, but forgive Bregman for the exaggeration. Already that day, Álvarez had hit 110.5 balls in the first inning, 108.7 balls in the third, and 114.9 balls in the fifth. He does these types of things regularly enough that a 120-mph single isn’t out of the question (his record this year sits at 117.4 mph ahead of Chicago White Sox starter Lucas Giolito on June 17).

Some stories about Álvarez border on apocryphal. Astros midfielder Jake Meyers said he heard Álvarez hit a ball over a net well inside the outfield fence on a back field at the Astros spring training complex. He estimated the distance to be somewhere between 475 and 500 feet. Bench coach Joe Espada acknowledged Álvarez’s springtime successes and hinted that he regularly hits practice pitches of at least 480 feet. He walked into a lake on the property across from the field and hit balls all the way out of the complex itself onto the streets adjacent to the facility.

And as if that wasn’t enough, Bregman said, Álvarez has “great baseball skills. Good gameplay. good instincts And he has all the tools. He can play defense. He can throw. It’s accurate too. I don’t know what the numbers and metrics are saying, but I think this year he’s been above average.”

In some ways, Álvarez has been a plus outfielder this year – a surprise this year after playing 174 games at DH compared to 51 in left field when he came this season. His arm is particularly impressive, ranking third among all major league fielders on FanGraphs’ 2022 defensive stats.

Of course, the Astros didn’t give Álvarez a six-year, $115 million contract extension in June because of his throwing ability. He is the present and future of the organization because he can hit like few others, because his swing is sacred rather than a hole, because despite all the achievements Yordan Álvarez has achieved in such a short time, there is still much more to come.

“I just see a professional hitter who has a great understanding of what he wants to do in the box and goes out there and plays at a very high level,” Brantley said. “The way he carries himself you’d think he’s got 10+ years in the big leagues. He has a nice swing and all the physical tools but at the same time some mental aspects and approach that he brings to the plate and a great understanding of what he wants to do.

“It’s very impressive how he thinks and how he goes about his business and it was an honor to watch him bat.” MLB Playoffs – How Yordan Alvarez drove the Astros to ALCS

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