At last, Air Yordan is once again flexing his muscles.
“It was great,” said manager Dusty Baker of Alvarez’s home run. “He’s been working and working and working.”
In recent days, Baker discussed how Alvarez wasn’t quite right yet. Alvarez has been contributing -- he came into Sunday with a 141 wRC+ -- but his light tower power was missing.
As a rookie, Alvarez went 11.59 at-bats between home runs, slugging 27 dingers in 313 at-bats en route to running away with the 2019 American League Rookie of the Year Award. Entering Sunday, however, Alvarez was at 38 at-bats per home run this season. Raw strength, of course, isn’t the issue. Rather, it’s been a matter of rediscovering his stroke.
“This guy missed a whole year last year,” Baker said. “It’s hard to make up a whole year in a month. Some good things are going to happen once he keeps swinging that bat.”
When Alvarez is healthy, good things certainly do tend to happen. In a lineup full of All-Stars, Alvarez is arguably the team’s best bat. If anything, he’s certainly the most feared -- and when he’s present, the effect is tangible.
Since debuting in 2019, the Astros have averaged 6.1 runs per game when Alvarez plays, and 4.5 runs per game when he doesn’t. In all fairness, Alvarez missed all but two games in 2020, a season where most of Houston’s key bats struggled. Still, it’s not ludacris to say Alvarez transforms Houston’s lineup from elite to transcendent.
“He’s a big part of our offense,” Baker said. “You saw what it was like for him not to be in the offense last year.”
“He’s an unbelievable hitter,” said third baseman Alex Bregman. “Can do everything. Swings at good pitches, hits the ball hard, has great, quality at-bats. It’s a blessing to be hitting in front of him.”
Curiously enough, home runs aren’t a problem specific to Alvarez.
Like Alvarez, the Astros’ offense as a whole has been performing well, but the home runs have been lacking. In their last 10 games, including Sunday, Houston averaged 5.3 runs per game, but hit just seven home runs. The long ball isn’t everything, but the lack of early pop has been a deviation from what the Astros look like at their best.
“All pitches aren’t home run pitches, especially when you’re facing a lot of sinker/slider guys,” Baker said. “It’s hard to elevate the ball with sinker/slider guys, but the important thing is not hitting the ball out of the ballpark. The important thing is winning games.”
Baker theorized that Houston’s low home run total may have to do with the number of southpaws Houston has faced, noting that left-handed pitchers are better equipped to keep balls in the park. Regardless of whether that hypothesis is true, the Astros have certainly faced a legion of lefties. In this series against the Rays, manager Kevin Cash trotted out three lefty starters. Houston only had two home runs. Of Houston’s 28 games this season, more than half have been started by lefties.
“Man, that’s a lot. I didn’t think there were that many left-handed people in the world,” Baker said. “There used to not be that many left-handed people. Now, it seems like there’s lefties everywhere.”
The question of righty-versus-lefty has seldom been a problem for Alvarez, whose career splits juxtapose that of the average left-handed hitter. While most lefty batters struggle against fellow southpaws, Alvarez’s career splits are just about the same.
Assuming he’s healthy, Alvarez will rack up quite a few more home runs by season’s end off righties and lefties alike. Alvarez is, once again, tapping into his power, and Houston stands to reap the benefits.
“He’s on his way to very big things,” Baker said. “We all know it.”