It’s been a very, very good year for young hitters in MLB. Reigning NL Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuña Jr. and runner-up Juan Soto are continuing to rake in their second full seasons. This year’s rookie class includes a ridiculous amount of hitting talent. From Fernando Tatís Jr. to Pete Alonso, from Bryan Reynolds to seemingly the entire Blue Jays team, young position players are finding success. With all due respect to all those players, my goal here today is to direct your attention to my favorite among them, Astro rookie Yordan Álvarez.
If Álvarez hadn’t already been on your radar, his three home run game against the Orioles might have put him there. Haven’t seen them? Go ahead and watch. I can wait, whilst you admire how he drove them with authority to all fields. While that three home run game boosted his national media presence, Alvarez has been doing great things since June 9, when the Astros were basically forced to call him up because he was hitting .343/.443/.742 in AAA. Since then, he’s hitting almost as well against actual MLB pitchers, with a .333/.414/.697 slashline that’s good for a 187 wRC+.
While I throw the statistic Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) around pretty casually in my articles, I think it’s worth taking a moment to go over it quickly before we move on (and feel free to dig deep over at Fangraphs if you’re interested). Basically, wRC+ is a league and park-adjusted statistic that calculates the offensive contributions of a hitter regardless of context (so it doesn’t take into consideration factors out of the player’s control, such as whether there’s a runner in scoring position).
A 100 wRC+ is league-average and each point in either direction indicates that a player is hitting one percentage point better than his peers. So, the basic idea is that a player with a 130 wRC+ is 30% better at creating runs than a league-average hitter that year. The fact that it’s park and era-neutral, then, allows us to compare players, no matter when or where they played.
With that out of the way, if we go ahead and head over to Fangraphs, pull up every single rookie season in the history of baseball and then sort by wRC+, there are only two players ahead of Álvarez: Pete Browning, who had a 189 wRC+ in 1882, and Levi Meyerle, who had a 190 wRC+ in 1871. The next few players on the list, unlike those ahead of Álvarez, are players most folks have heard of: Willie McCovey (185), Frank Thomas (178) and Shoeless Joe Jackson (178).
Álvarez is having the best rookie season by wRC+ in baseball’s modern era. There are caveats here, obviously, but they really only apply to what might happen going forward, rather than the extremely remarkable start that Álvarez has had to his career. He’s only had 232 PAs, far less than the other 2019 rookies on the old WAR leaderboard. A 1-for-11 slump against the White Sox the series after Baltimore made it look like regression might be coming for him, then he reached base in every at bat in the next game against Oakland and dingered twice in the following game, giving him 19 home runs in his first 52 games. And speaking of regression, his .378 BABIP is extraordinarily high, but he’s run out high BABIPs throughout his time in the minors, and ranking in the top ten by average exit velocity isn’t going to hurt.
As offense in baseball has collectively become so focused on the three true outcomes, Álvarez is the perfect player for our current times, with a 24.6 K%, 12.1 BB% and all those quickly acquired home runs. Álvarez got a late start compared to many of the other AL Rookie of the Year contenders, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. certainly holds a profile advantage thanks.
But if Álvarez keeps hitting like this, it would actually be shocking for him not to take home the honors, especially since Brandon Lowe is on the IL, giving Álvarez a chance to make up some ground on his other main competition. But regardless of whether or not he takes home any hardware after the season, for now, every Álvarez at-bat is appointment viewing. Don’t sleep on one of the best rookie offensive performances in the history of a sport that has thousands and thousands of them.