Tuesday, February 7, 2023
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Astros slugger Yordan Alvarez seeing and hitting the ball like one of the best players in baseball

Yordan Alvarez has emerged as one of the biggest stars in the game.

Yordan Alvarez has emerged as one of the biggest stars in the game.
Image: Getty Images

I’ll admit it. I’ve done it. I’ve rooted for the Astros post-sign stealing scandal. It’s not a habit or anything. When it’s between blatant cheaters and Atlanta, there’s still too much of me that hates Chipper Jones and the whole racist taunt thing to have pulled for last year’s champs in the World Series. So, yes, I’ve sampled the fruit of the forbidden tree, and it’s not ripe yet.

There’s a familiar acrid taste, like burnt roux, that lingers after every successful at bat. Was that a matter of skill, or did the Astros invent some kind of secret agent contact lens that can read signs? I know, it’s a far leap from banging on a trashcan. Having said that, just because Pedro Pascal found the most blatant cocaine tunnel into the United States, doesn’t mean there’s not a more sophisticated method yet to be uncovered.

That’s simply one man’s perspective, and even though I’m sure some baseball fans — like those who pull for Dusty Baker — have found themselves siding with Houston, the prevailing vibe surrounding the AL West’s best team is please just go away for like three years. Move off of everyone associated with that World Series team, suck for a handful of years, and then reemerge with new stars who don’t bring an elephant into every ballpark like Stomper, not Orbit, is the team mascot.

Enter Yordan Álvarez, who first saw action with the 2019 team that lost in the World Series to the Washington Nationals. The sign-stealing reputation was so omnipresent that Washington was warned by other teams to keep changing their signs ahead of the series.

Then a rookie (technically, Rookie of the Year), do we view Álvarez as part of the Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Michael Brantley, and Alex Bregman contingent? He took a step back due to COVID and injuries the past two seasons, but has surpassed his rookie form, smashing pitching this year and garnering comparisons to players like Mike Trout and Aaron Judge. In a span of 48 hours this week, the people at FiveThirtyEight said he might be baseball’s best hitter, and a writer at MLB.com called him the new best hitter in baseball.

While he needs a larger sample size and a couple more years of raking before he has the name recognition of a Trout or Judge, he’s in a difficult situation for someone who is hitting like baseball’s next super star. He’s got a frame that would make Chris Hemsworth jealous, and the literal power of Thor. Here he is, trying to reach Oracle Park from the Oakland Coliseum via home run.

The stat I keep seeing bandied about is this expected number that Álvarez leads the league in. What I took away from the story problem that is xwOBA, is that Álvarez’s .497 is 30 points higher than the next guy, which is really good considering the “next guy” is Judge. And the Yankee right fielder is leading the league in home runs (Álvarez is second) and expected contract price.

While the Houston outfielder/DH did get a well-deserved contract extension, it’s safe to say that he would have earned more than $115 million over six years had he bet on himself like Judge is doing in New York. So if he didn’t get a jaw-dropping deal and doesn’t play in the right uniform, how is he supposed to overcome all of the other difficulties that players like him face to get the flowers his play merits?

There are a ton of factors at play as to why Air Yordan isn’t a household brand, predictably unoriginal nickname included. At Deadspin, we’ve covered MLB’s difficulties marketing Black players, as well as its inability to promote foreign players, so it’s no surprise that Rob Manfred’s soon-to-be-fired-by-Brad-Pitt/Billy-Beane marketing team has zero clue how to market a Black Cuban man.

It’s also somewhat on Houston and his teammates, as well. The organization shouldn’t be given a pass solely because they have fun players. Prior to the scandal, the Astros had a glowing approval rating, and if that was still the case, imagine how popular Álvarez would be despite the Manfred factor. Never mind that the Yankees and Boston Red Sox also got popped for egregious infractions, yet Houston is the only team synonymous with sign stealing.

Houston has the fourth best record in baseball, and a guy who is a legitimate MVP candidate during the same year that Judge is unconscious and the Yankees are the best team in the bigs. And yet, people are writing that the man who creates thunder with a baseball bat is doing it quietly.

The year Álvarez is having has been anything but muted.

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