I have something of an annual tradition here at FanGraphs. Once a year, give or take, I write about how Yordan Alvarez is underrated. I can’t help it; he continues to be one of the very few best hitters in baseball, and he continues to get less credit than he deserves. Now, though, he doesn’t need credit, because he has cash — $115 million worth, to be precise — as he and the Astros agreed to a contract extension that will keep him in Houston through 2028:
Slugger Yordan Álvarez and the Houston Astros are in agreement on a six-year, $115 million contract extension, sources familiar with the deal tell ESPN. Contract kicks in next season. Biggest contract ever for a DH and $26M/year for 3 FA years. And Astros lock up a great hitter.
—Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) June 3, 2022
Even though I just mentioned what an excellent hitter Alvarez is, it bears repeating. This year, he’s hitting a scorching .295/.391/.624, good for a 192 wRC+, second in baseball. He’s doing it without a ludicrous BABIP; in fact, his .280 mark looks likely to increase as the season goes on. That makes his offensive production all the more remarkable; it’s easy to post a hot batting line if you’re BABIP’ing .400, but Alvarez does it the old-fashioned way, with walks and extra-base hits.
How does Alvarez get to that massive production? By obliterating the baseball consistently. He’s barreled up a whopping 19.1% of his batted balls this year. That’s Stantonian power, or even a bit better; Stanton checks in at 17.2% since the start of the 2015 season, for example. Since Alvarez came up in 2019, he’s sixth in baseball in barrel rate (among hitters with at least one season qualifying for the batting title), and the guys in front of him are a who’s who of enormous power hitters:
Highest Barrel Rate, ’19-’22
This list does a good job of explaining the possible highs and lows of Alvarez’s production, but it leaves something out. One way to rack up barrels is to be powerful and almost exclusively hit fly balls. Sanó, Gallo, and Sánchez get to theirs that way. So, too, does Trout. He’s become increasingly fly ball-heavy in recent years in an attempt to tap into his power.
That’s not the case with Alvarez. He does his damage the same way Tatis, Ohtani, Harper, and Judge do: crushing line drives and occasionally hitting those over the fence. His fly ball rate doesn’t approach those high-angled sluggers, which explains why his career BABIP sits comfortably above .300; hit laser beams all over the field, and you’ll reach base consistently.
This year, Alvarez has improved on another way of reaching base by cutting down on his strikeouts. If there were one blemish on his offensive resume, it was a slightly elevated strikeout rate; coming into 2022, it stood at 24.6%. That’s fine when you take your walks (10.5%) and boast the third-highest slugging percentage in baseball (Trout and Tatis were the only hitters ahead of him), but it’s certainly something to work on. He’s worked on it, alright, to the tune of a 16.3% strikeout rate this year. And Alvarez didn’t sacrifice any walks to do it; he’s walking 12.9% of the time so far.
Look under the hood, and it doesn’t appear to be a fluke. He’s swinging less at pitches out of the zone and more at pitches in the zone. If you’re into Baseball Savant’s attack zones, which split the strike zone up into smaller pieces, you’ll like this: he’s swinging at more pitches over the heart of the plate this year (70% versus 66% in 2021). Meanwhile, he’s halved his swing rate at chase pitches, going from 25% to 12%. Uh, yeah, that’ll play.
How much will it play? ZiPS thinks quite a lot:
ZiPS Projection – Yordan Alvarez
I know how I usually read these ZiPS projection charts: by taking a quick look at plate appearances and then letting my eyes drift over to WAR on the far right. Just for today, resist that urge. Look at those projected OBP figures. Look at those projected slugging percentages. That’s not what he’ll put up in a good year; that’s just median projections. He’s alarmingly good.
If there’s one risk to Alvarez’s game, it’s injury. He missed nearly the entire 2020 season with a knee injury that eventually required surgery, which puts his total knee surgery count up to two, one on each. He was never particularly fleet of foot, and he’s gotten slower; he’s in the 27th percentile for sprint speed this year after checking in at roughly average in his rookie year.
That’s at age 24; there aren’t as many true DH-only players in baseball as in the past, but Alvarez qualifies in my opinion, though the Astros have played him quite a bit in the outfield this year in place of Michael Brantley, another so-so defender . Alvarez has been below average, but he hasn’t been the worst outfielder in baseball or anything, and I think he clears the bar of “guy you can hide in a small left field” for now. That might not be the case in five years, but you don’t have to lope around left field to be valuable if you hit like he does.
Alvarez’s extension is the first signed by Houston’s new wave of stars; Kyle Tucker, Jeremy Peña, Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, and José Urquidy are all still either pre-arb or in arbitration. I like what they’re doing here. Anchoring the lineup with one of the best bats in baseball for years to come makes it easier to plan for the future, and Alvarez does require some planning, since you can’t run out a revolving-door DH situation to get your hitters rest when he’s on the team. To be clear, that’s fine. Using the DH as a soft rest day is okay if you don’t have any better alternatives. But that model is born more out of necessity than anything else. Every team doing that would gladly exchange their situation for the Astros’ ability to plug in Alvarez every day.
I like this contract even more than ZiPS does. ZiPS would have offered him six years and $122 million, bang on the actual 6/115 contract. That’s a big deal, and it values his free agency years at $26 million, but $26 million doesn’t sound so bad when you consider his career batting line of .289/.373/.589, good for the second-best wRC+ in baseball since his 2019 debut.
Hitters like this don’t come around very often. We all know Juan Soto is a generational talent, and indeed, he’s only behind Alvarez because he’s scuffled this year while Alvarez has gone supernova. But the mere fact that I’m making excuses for Soto should tell you everything you need to know. Alvarez is Soto-esque, and while you wouldn’t offer as much for a worse-defending, year-older version of Soto, you’d still offer quite a lot.
Would you give a great hitter a reasonable pile of money — $115 million isn’t nothing, but it will hardly put Houston into a financial straitjacket — knowing you were only paying him through his age-31 season? Of course you would. And it’s even a little better, because due to a fluke of birthdays, Alvarez’s “baseball age” is misleading. He was born on June 27th; if he’d been born 4 days later, we’d be talking about the contract extending through his age-30 season instead. He’s young, and fearsome, and apparently getting better. Sounds like the perfect person to pay. I think this deal is great, both from Houston’s and Alvarez’s perspective, and that he’ll be a cornerstone of their bruising lineup for years to come.