Yordan Alvarez is going to undergo surgery next week to repair a partial tear of patella tendon in right knee and is out for the year, Baker said.
— Brian McTaggart (@brianmctaggart) August 19, 2020
Knee problems are sadly not new for Alvarez; even in March, there was a very real chance that he’d miss what was then Opening Day due to his knees. His bread-and-butter will always be making baseballs travel a very long distance, but he’s also surprisingly quick for a man his size. Despite what the massive slugger trope suggests, Alvarez’s sprint speed during his rookie season was measured by Statcast as 26.8 feet per second, just below the league average of 27. That burst of agility is rightly not used to steal bases, but it was enough to give the Astros the flexibility to occasionally use him in the outfield.
The hope had been that the season’s start date being pushed back from late March to late July would allow sufficient time for Alvarez to heal from his knee problems. But further complicating matters was a case of COVID-19, officially revealed last Friday after a couple weeks of the usual-for-2020 speculation surrounding a player missing time due to “undisclosed” reasons.
His first official at-bat of 2020 was a fun one, showing off the power that helped him force his way onto the 2019 roster earlier than the team expected. The home run off an ill-chosen pitch from Nestor Cortes wasn’t a monster shot in terms of velocity or distance, but like many of Alvarez’s oppo tacos, it looked like an almost-casual flick of the bat.[embedded content]
Sadly, Alvarez’s first home run of 2020 was also his last of the season.
In the short-term, the slugger’s absence simplifies the Astros’ attempts to fit all of their intriguing bats into the lineup. Michael Brantley can be activated from the Injured List as soon as Saturday, and after suffering leg problems of his own this season, he can now slot in as the designated hitter in place of Alvarez. That arrangement is unlikely to last past Brantley’s return to good health as he’s reportedly not crazy about the idea of not playing the field, leaving the team likely to use some mix of Kyle Tucker, Abraham Toro, Taylor Jones, and banged-up starters at the position.
That last sentence is the crux of the problem for Houston. While the team is hardly lacking for offense, currently ranking third in the AL in runs scored, the loss of Alvarez is an extra limit on its offensive upside. The 2019 Astros were a phenomenally talented roster, but they’ve lost Gerrit Cole to free agency, and in addition to Alvarez, are also down Justin Verlander, Roberto Osuna, Jose Urquidy, Brad Peacock, and Aledmys Diaz (along with a few others) due to injury, and not all of those players are expected to return this season.
That presents the team with a problem, at least in terms of winning another division crown. This season is a sprint and unlike last year, Houston hasn’t spent August casually sitting on a comfortable AL West lead. The Oakland A’s, who have the AL’s best record at 17-8, enjoy a 2 1/2 game advantage as play begins on Thursday. Coming into 2020, ZiPS had the Astros as the AL West favorite, with a 43.9% chance at winning the division. With Alvarez’s season over, the ZiPS divisional probability for Houston drops from 34% to 30%, edging Oakland over the two-to-one favorite line.
|Team||Current ROS W%||Preseason ROS W%||Difference|
|Boston Red Sox||.502||.519||-0.017|
|Toronto Blue Jays||.452||.463||-0.011|
|Tampa Bay Rays||.561||.564||-0.003|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||.602||.604||-0.002|
|New York Yankees||.582||.583||-0.001|
|Los Angeles Angels||.506||.506||0.000|
|St. Louis Cardinals||.513||.512||0.001|
|Kansas City Royals||.440||.437||0.003|
|Chicago White Sox||.522||.516||0.006|
|San Diego Padres||.542||.526||0.016|
|New York Mets||.547||.530||0.017|
|San Francisco Giants||.461||.421||0.040|
The silver lining for the Astros is that when it comes to winning the World Series, winning the division isn’t as important as it has been in recent seasons. The 16-team playoff format gives a much smaller bonus for higher-seeded teams than the “normal” postseason format. No home field advantage perks can make up for avoiding the Wild Card round, which one may as well call the coin flip round. Still, Houston and the team’s fans ought to be concerned that the team’s margin for error keeps shrinking.
At the start of the season, participating in a significant deadline trade seemed unlikely unless a significant starting pitcher became available, but now the team has another reason to be active. The Astros team that won the 2017 World Series could reasonably look forward to several more playoff appearances. The 2020 team, on the other hand, has already lost some key contributors, and with Brantley, Yuli Gurriel, Peacock, Josh Reddick, and George Springer, all free agent after this season, and Carlos Correa, Zack Greinke, and Verlander hitting the market after 2021, it could lose a few more. The injury to Yordan Alvarez has added another reason for the team to embrace urgency.
Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.
FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you’ve come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.