WASHINGTON -- Even as a rookie, Yordan Alvarez was one of the best designated hitters in the American League in 2019. His bat proved to be a big weapon for the Astros all season, and the lefty slugger likely secured the AL Rookie of the Year Award after launching 27 home runs in just 87 games.
But as the World Series shifts to D.C., the Astros will have to operate without a DH due to National League rules, putting Alvarez’s role in question as Houston faces an 0-2 hole heading into Game 3 on Friday at Nationals Park.
It's more of a conversation for Games 3 and 5, as Alvarez will most likely sit in Game 4 against Patrick Corbin, a left-hander. In that game, Jake Marisnick, a right-handed hitter and above-average outfielder, will presumably replace Reddick in the lineup and play center field. George Springer would shift to right, which constitutes Houston’s typical alignment against lefties this October.
The looming lineup decision ultimately comes down to how comfortable manager AJ Hinch feels about Alvarez’s ability to play left field. His ability with the bat has made him an integral part of a dominant Astros lineup, and the bat has certainly woken up after significant struggles at the plate during the AL Championship Series against the Yankees.
After going 1-for-22 in the ALCS, Alvarez has had better at-bats through two games in the World Series. His first plate appearance in Game 1 resulted in a walk, which seemed to reset him at the plate. Alvarez went 2-for-3, and he followed that with another hit in Game 2. He very easily could’ve had two hits on Wednesday, but Asdrúbal Cabrera robbed Alvarez in the shift on a ball that had an exit velocity of 99 mph, according to Statcast. He’s still looking to produce for power, as all three hits have been singles, but it’s a start.
But while the improved at-bats will make the decision that much tougher for Hinch, Alvarez will have to depend on his glove in order to make an extended impact over the next three games of the World Series.
“I think it’s always important to balance that,” Hinch said. “It’s important as it can be unless we don’t make a play in the outfield and I’ve got two guys out of position, and we give up runs that way. Those are the nature of tough issues or tough problems. While I think we need as much offense as we can get, certainly with runners in scoring position. I think it is also smart when you’re facing a team like the Nats that put the ball in play, that challenge you with an up-tempo, fast style of play, there’s the other side of the ball, as well.”
Alvarez has played just 66 innings in the outfield this season, with the rest of his work being done as the designated hitter. In the limited sample size, the results have not been encouraging, which is why Hinch said he will continue to wrestle with the decision until he has to submit a lineup hours before Game 3.
Hinch said he’s currently leaning towards sitting Alvarez in Game 3, but that doesn’t mean the Cuban slugger won’t get an appearance and possible starts in the other two games. Once he does play the outfield, Alvarez will have to fare better than he did during the regular season.
In those 66 innings, Alvarez struggled on some routine plays. The 22-year-old went 0-for-3 on two-star plays, which are plays that range from 76-90 percent in Catch Probability. His lack of mobility isn’t surprising as Alvarez stands 6-foot-5 and is listed at 225 pounds.
If you look at the Outs Above Average leaderboard, which is the season-long cumulative expression of each individual Catch Probability play, Alvarez ranks at the bottom of the list. His expected overall catch percentage was 94 percent, but his actual catch percentage came in at 75 percent. The -19 percent gap finished second-worst among a group of 288 outfielders with at least five opportunities. Only White Sox outfielder Ryan Goins (-21 percent) finished with a lower percentage.
In the first two games of the World Series, Michael Brantley hasn’t had a catch probability chance more difficult than 95 percent, but outfield defense could come into play in Game 3 with Zack Greinke on the mound. Opposing hitters hit a fly ball 33.1 percent of the time against Greinke, which ranked 37th in the Majors this season.
Alvarez’s sample size only covers 10 games and it doesn’t indicate that he isn’t capable of providing serviceable defense over the course of a three-game stretch. The Indians made it work with Carlos Santana in the 2016 World Series when he was asked to play left field at Wrigley Field. The Red Sox had the same dilemma during last year’s Fall Classic with J.D. Martinez.
“I remember getting this question in the middle of the season when Yordan came up and we went to a couple of National League ballparks,” Hinch said. “I played him in left field. And there was always this question about, ‘Hey, if you’re in the World Series, you’re going to need him in the outfield.’ And I’m like, ‘Hey, just give me that problem,’ and now I have that problem. Be careful what you wish for, but it’s a good problem to have.”
Hinch is right. Having Alvarez on your roster, whether he starts or not, is better than not having him available. If he doesn’t start Game 3, Josh Reddick will likely get the start in right field, while Brantley stays in left. Reddick, who is 3-for-27 in the postseason, is a significant downgrade at the plate, but an upgrade defensively.
There’s also the possibility that Alvarez serves as a key late-inning bat. With no shortage of pinch-hit opportunities, the Astros could use Alvarez in the first opportunity to get runs. On the flip side, if Houston decides to start Alvarez and replace him for defense in the later innings, the Astros would have to gamble on finishing the game without one of their top left-handed-hitting options.
“I don’t think we play all three games here without him seeing the outfield,” Hinch said. “I’m valuing how much defense -- If I’ve got to play three to six innings of defense in order to get those two-at bats, or do I wait for the big at-bat and have him pinch-hit. That’s the nature of managing, I’ll have to make that decision.”