In two at-bats against Gerrit Cole on Thursday, the Astros’ 23-year-old DH, Yordan Alvarez, took the Yankees’ ace deep twice, keeping his squad in a game they would eventually win. Alvarez looked as unstoppable as a prime David Ortiz — and nearly as large, at 6’5”, 227 pounds.
Although his numbers against the Yankees are relatively unimpressive, carrying a career .269 wOBA against New York’s pitching, Alvarez’s herculean raw power makes him the kind of hitter that, with a little more polish, can get back to the levels he reached in his 2019 American League Rookie of the Year winning campaign. In that season, he was, simply put, one of the best hitters in baseball, finishing third in wOBA behind the AL’s MVP, Mike Trout, and the NL’s jilted runner-up, Christian Yelich.
After missing all but two games in 2020 due to a positive COVID test and then requiring arthroscopic surgery on both of his knees, Alvarez appears to be back on track towards proving 2019 was no fluke. So far, he hasn’t been quite as good as he was in 2019, especially due to his suddenly deflated walk rate of just 4.1 percent compared to his 2019 mark of 14.1%, but the power is undoubtedly still all there.
The foundation of Alvarez’s offensive dominance is his preternatural ability to mash modern mistakes. Nowadays, pitchers — especially the harder-throwing ones — tend to elevate their fastball to beat batters’ barrels to the zone, and typically try to keep their off-speed stuff down in order to prevent hitters from sending them skyward. Alvarez has proven dominant against the inverse pattern, clubbing fastballs that are either soft, or mislocated down in the zone, and hung or elevated off-speed pitches.
Of Alvarez’s 13 homers in 2019 against fastballs thrown by pitchers (he hilariously homered twice against position players), only three were against offerings thrown at more than 95 mph. Two of them were severe misses, as Lance Lynn missed his inside-spot with this center-cut heater, and Tommy Kahnle missed the outside corner with a low-and-in freebie.
Alvarez’s only outlier to this trend was aided by Minute Maid Park’s homer-friendly left-field fence, as this slice-job snuck over the wall in the left field corner despite being hit 11 mph softer than any other of his homers against fastballs.
Of his dozen homers against off-speed and breaking pitches, Alvarez punished elevated and/or weak movement. The only pitch below the zone Alvarez was able to lift into the bleachers was this terrible changeup from Matt Albers, thrown with more than 100 fewer RPMs than his average changeup. As noted on the broadcast in this clip, Alvarez “looked terrible against the first two changeups” of the at bat, before “golfing” the third out of the park.
Despite his mid-week dominance of the American League’s best starting pitcher, Alvarez has had an up-and-down history against the Yankees. He’s handled them in the regular season, but during the 2019 ALCS, he went 1-for-22 and struck out in exactly half of his plate appearances. It was every rookie’s nightmare.
In that series, Yankees pitchers fed him fastballs with an even greater frequency than he saw in the regular season, but did a decent job of avoiding his sweet spots. Mostly, they kept the four-seamers up-and-away, and the sinkers/two-seamers down-and-in, playing the natural run of each pitch against Alvarez’s quick bat and eagerness to do damage at the plate. However, even when they did occasionally offer up meatballs, they did so to open at-bats, taking advantage of Alvarez’s slightly-greater-than-average patience on first pitches.
The Yankees’ pitching staff also induced strikeouts and poor contact from Alvarez with a bevy of breakers down and out of the zone, refraining from hanging anything soft over the heart of the plate.
In the 10 Alvarez at-bats in that series which concluded with an off-speed or breaking pitch, he struck out nine times. By getting ahead immediately with fastballs for strikes and finishing at bats with junk, the Yankees kept Alvarez guessing and on his heels, avoiding a situation where they’d have to feed him a cookie that he’d be expecting.
While Cole has been one of the more preponderant permitters of homeruns since he began elevating his fastball and blossomed into the star that he is today, he’d mostly escaped that pattern until facing Alvarez this week. In 2019 and 2020, Cole posted HR/9 rates of 1.2 and 1.7, respectively, but had allowed a rate of just 0.2 homers per nine innings through his first six 2021 starts. In fact, he had yet to surrender a single homer on the season since Teoscar Hernández squared one up on Opening Day.
Alvarez was able to crush two no-doubters against Cole on Thursday by capitalizing on a pair of the exact kind of mistakes that Alvarez feasted on in his rookie year. For his first number, Alvarez spun on a spinner, driving it into Yankee Stadium’s second deck:
Before the pitch, Kyle Higashioka clearly called for this ball in the dirt, in an attempt to “back-foot” Alvarez and earn a swing over the top of a pitch that looks like a strike before darting down and out of the zone. Not only did Cole leave this slider in the strike zone, he threw it with slightly less vertical drop than his usual slide-piece, and about half of the horizontal break.
On his second dong of the day, Alvarez turned around a 98-mph Cole fastball for a laser into Monument Park.
Per Higgy’s spot, Cole was shooting for the outside corner, but left the fastball down-and-in, a no-no to a pull-hitting basher like Alvarez. Sometimes, Cole’s stuff is so stellar that he gets away with suboptimal location, but unlike in the 2019 ALCS, Alvarez was all over it.
Alvarez’s third hit of Thursday’s contest effectively proved the value of locating pitches against him. On the eighth pitch of his final at-bat, in a 3-2 count, Alvarez flared a Lucas Luetge fastball into centerfield for a single. While Luetge’s fastball was 10 mph slower than the one Alvarez bombed off of Cole, he was able to miss his barrel and get on his hands simply by locating the pitch at the top of the zone. Alvarez’s in-rhythm, lagged swing still earned him a base hit, but Luetge was able to avoid Cole’s fate with a significantly worse fastball, simply by locating it more precisely.
Despite Alvarez’s success against poor pitches, he’s actually as susceptible to a well-executed arsenal as any other big leaguer. Mostly, he hasn’t proven to be a guy capable of beating a pitcher at their own game — just one that will make them dearly regret their failures to execute it. This year, and even in 2019, Alvarez owned an average chase rate, suggesting that his walk rate is fueled by opposing pitcher’s unwillingness to pitch to him, rather than a Mookie Betts or Mike Trout-level ability to discern between balls and strikes.
The most striking statistic highlighting Alvarez’s pattern of success is his count-dependent performance. In even counts, Alvarez has a career OPS of .983. When ahead, that number balloons to 1.389. However, when he’s behind, he owns just a .637 OPS. Getting ahead with first-pitch strikes — and staying ahead with junk around, but out of the zone — is essential to a pitcher’s success against Alvarez. Cole broke this rule in each of the homers he allowed. In the first instance, he forfeited his earned advantage, throwing a cement-mixer of a slider in a two-strike count, and then had to throw a fastball after falling behind in the count that Alvarez knew was coming, which led to the latter.
As a very young power hitter with the demonstrated potential to dominate American League pitching for the foreseeable future, Yordan Alvarez should strike fear into the hearts of Yankee fans whenever he steps into the box against the Bombers. He is absolutely a problem, but not one without a solution. If the Yankees can steer clear of his wheelhouse by keeping the hard stuff up and away, and the soft stuff down and in, they can handle him similarly to the way they were able to in their most recent playoff matchup against him.