Digging for Diamonds: Yordan Alvarez
First base prospects can be an extremely divisive bunch among scouts, bloggers, and dynasty league players like you and I. Conventional wisdom teaches us that first base is typically reserved for the team’s most productive power hitters, along with third base and the corner outfielders. Therefore, you would expect several of the top-ranked minor league prospects to be slugging first baseman; if you can build around a player like Miguel Cabrera or Albert Pujols, your team would be set for the next decade. So why is it so hard to find a first base prospect that everyone can seem to agree on?
Taking a look through Baseball America’s past lists of the top 100 prospects in baseball, we consistently see the top first baseman in baseball starting their careers at other, more physically demanding positions. The reason for this is simple: hitting takes athleticism, just like fielding, just like pitching. Most of the top hitting prospects in baseball were also top athletes, and teams do not typically banish athletes to first base unless their bodies outgrow their normal, more demanding positions or they are just freaks of nature like Cody Bellinger. Pujols played third base and outfield before shifting to first full time, Cabrera was a shortstop for a while when he was coming up with the Marlins, Mark Teixiera played third for the Rangers, the list goes on and on. As we have seen just recently with recently hyped first base prospects like Dan Vogelbach and A.J. Reed, often times when a prospect is first base-only due to a lack of athleticism and/or a bad body, their offensive performance struggles at the highest level, but that is for another article.
Great, now that I have established that TINSTAAFBP, it’s time to tell you all about a first base prospect to start getting excited about! But wait, here’s the best part: he’s only 19 years old and years away from the Majors! In all seriousness, the Houston Astros have a young man playing in Low-A right now who may just be breaking out in his first full season, and his performance has forced the scouting community (and the wanna-be-scouts/blogging community) to take a closer look at just what we are dealing with here.
Yordan Alvarez was acquired by the Astros last deadline after the Dodgers inked him just before the 2016 signing period closed last June. When I say Alvarez is a “young man,” I am emphasizing both the “young” and the “man.” Jumping all the way to full-season ball after just 44 DSL at-bats would be a challenge for any prospect, but Alvarez is only 19 years old, two years younger than the league average. He is also quite a large specimen, checking in at 6-5/225, and while they don’t have the numbers for the league’s average height and weight, I would venture to guess that Alvarez would find himself at the high end of both spectrums. If you need a MLB-comparison based on his body, well, Joey Gallo is listed at 6-5/235. You would expect someone with the size of Gallo to have similar strikeout issues, particularly for someone who is 19 with under 50 professional at-bats under his belt entering the season. However, through 63 at-bats, Alvarez’s K-rate is nearly 12 points lower that Gallo’s at the same age/level., at 25.3%. versus Gallo’s 37.0% back in 2013. Alvarez also bests Gallo’s walk-rate, at a 10.8% versus Alvarez’ 14.7%-rate, nearly twice the league’s average walk-rate of 7.6%. You’d like to see that K-rate go down even more, but no one is going to fault an inexperienced 19 year-old for striking out once every four trips to the plate, especially if he’s walking nearly 15% of the time and hitting for power.
Since Alvarez is still so fresh, it is hard to get a good read on him strictly from a statistical standpoint, so let’s take a look at what the scouting reports have to say about Alvarez. MLB.com ranks him as the Astros #15 prospect and says he has “one of the highest offensive ceilings in the system” with “a quiet left-handed stroke with advanced feel for the barrel and mastery of the strike zone… he flashes plus raw power.” Eric Longenhagen at FanGraphs said just last month that Alvarez has “generated lots of buzz during extended due to his big raw power” and that “[his] swing has lots of natural loft, and it looks as though he clearly has the power to profile at first.” Baseball America also noted his plus raw power and other favorable attributes both in their online scouting reports when he was signed and subsequently traded last year (links in the above paragraph), as well as their esteemed Baseball America annual prospect handbook, which is a Christmas request for four years running now (thanks Santa!).
Reports like the ones above are music to my ears and are exactly what I am looking for when trying to evaluate a young, inexperienced player who is making noise with the bat. Speaking of making noise… just last evening, Alvarez hit a monstrous homer (apparently with an exit velocity of 110mph) and drove in a career-high five RBIs, extending his hitting streak to ten games and his overall line to a ridiculous .403/.488/.627 in his first 19 games. Yes, it has only been 19 games, but combined with the scouting reports, his performance in the DSL last year, and this hot streak he has been riding these past few weeks…here comes my catchphrase: time is running out! If you are in a league which rosters more than 200 prospects and Alvarez is available, I would strongly recommend picking him up for one of your struggling lower-level prospects, and feel free to ask me questions in the comments section if you are debating whether or not to drop someone for Alvarez.
I do not know if Yordan Alvarez will become a productive Major League baseball player some day. I do not know if he can maintain this current level of production, nor do I know much about his defensive exploits at first base. If he is truly a DH-only player, than his prospect status certainly does take a hit. What I do know is that Yordan Alvarez is hitting the crap out of the baseball right now and has a stock arrow pointed firmly in the ‘up’ direction. My advice is to keep riding that arrow for as long as you can, but just know, TINSTAAFBP. Don’t be left holding Vogelbach2.0 in four years. Knowing when to sell is as important as knowing when to buy, and right now, it is time to buy Yordan Alvarez.