By Robert Dominguez
Yordan Alvarez turned a midseason call-up into a rookie performance for the ages.
The Houston Astros’ Cuban-born DH was the unanimous selection for AL Rookie of the Year in 2019 and just the 11th player to top all 30 ballots in what amounted to a no-brainer choice for voters.
His other major accomplishment: Making baseball fans outside of Houston hate the Astros even more as the American League pennant winners added yet another young star to an already fearsome lineup.
Alvarez, 22, was called up to the big club on June 9 and established himself as a home run-hitting machine from his very first game. He smashed a two-run shot against the Baltimore Orioles, hit another homer the next day and capping a dizzying week at the plate with four round-trippers in his first five games.
It only took him a dozen games to make the record books, becoming the first player in MLB history to drive in 16 runs in his first 12 games, while his 7 HR in that span set a new Astros mark.
The lefty slugger also earned himself a nifty, natural nickname thanks to his towering, tape-measure blasts: Air Yordan.
By the end of July, he had won back-to-back Rookie of the Month awards thanks to a total of 13 HR, 39 RBI, a .336 average and a league-leading 1.120 OPS in his first two months. Alvarez’s 51 RBI over his first 45 career games were the most ever by a player, moving past some guy named Ted Williams, who had 47 RBI in his first 45 games during his 1939 rookie campaign.
Alvarez finished the season at .313/.412/.655, with 27 home runs and 78 RBIs in just 313 at-bats, and his .655 slugging percentage was the highest ever for a qualified rookie.
But to put his (half) year in proper perspective, consider that Alvarez’s OPS was the third-best in all of baseball last season. The only players with a higher OPS than Alvarez’s 1.067 were NL MVP runner-up Christian Yelich (1.100) and AL MVP Mike Trout (1.083).
Air Yordan’s slam-dunk of a season completely blew away Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the Blue Jays’ third baseman with the Cooperstown pedigree whom many baseball pundits were banking would walk away with Rookie of the Year honors. (Guerrero, 20, was seventh in the voting, with a decent 15 HR, 69 RBI and .277 average in 123 games.)
“I’m very happy, very thankful to my family, to the team, to everybody who has supported me, to everybody in Cuba,” said Alvarez through an interpreter after the award announcement.
“I appreciate all the help everybody has given me during the season, especially my teammates and all the fans.”
Alvarez, who was born in Las Tunas, Cuba, played “pro” ball on the island and defected in 2016, originally signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers and was traded to the Astros for reliever Josh Fields.
He’s said he has one goal next season: Become a two-way player who’s more than a designated hitter.
“DH was just part of last year,” Alvarez said. “Next year, I’m more focused on being an outfielder.”
Robert Dominguez is co-author of “Bronx Bummers: The Unofficial History of the New York Yankees’ Bad Boys, Blunders and Brawls.”
Photo source: thatlostdog — Under Creative Commons license