BALTIMORE — The Houston Astros have mastered the art of the high-impact midseason trade. In 2017 they got Justin Verlander, an ace who helped lead them to their first World Series title. Last season it was reliever Ryan Pressly, who has since become an All-Star. This summer they welcomed starters Zack Greinke and Aaron Sanchez, among others.
But in 2016, things were different. The Astros had won a wild-card berth the year before, but they were trailing for a playoff spot at the Aug. 1 non-waiver trading deadline. Their post-season deficit was just two and a half games, but Jeff Luhnow, their analytically-minded general manager, did not like his odds.
“We estimated on the day of the deadline our probability of making the playoffs around 25 percent,” Luhnow said. “And that wasn’t enough for us.”
Instead of adding, Luhnow subtracted a couple of middle relievers. He sent Scott Feldman to the Toronto Blue Jays for Lupe Chavez, a pitcher now in Class A. And he sent Josh Fields to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Yordan Alvarez, who since a call-up in June is off to one of the hottest starts in major league history.
Alvarez, a 22-year-old designated hitter with power and patience, swatted three homers on Saturday at Camden Yards, driving in seven of the Astros’ 23 runs in a romp over the Orioles. The outburst gave him 51 runs batted in, the most ever for a player in his first 45 games. The previous record-holder, Ted Williams, had 47.
“It’s something I just heard about right now,” Alvarez said later, through an interpreter. “It’s a point of pride for me, but it’s not something I think about day to day. I just think about doing my work.”
After going 2 for 5 in Sunday’s 8-7 loss, Alvarez was hitting .355 with 17 homers and a 1.164 on-base plus slugging percentage. He is a middle-of-the-order force for a team that is 77-41, a low-cost cornerstone who should help keep the first-place Astros contending for years.
“He has a lot of talent and we all know that,” said second baseman Jose Altuve, the winner of the American League Most Valuable Player Award in 2017. “But how humble he is, how smart he is and how passionate he is at home plate, it’s amazing.”
The Astros nearly signed Alvarez in 2016, after he defected from Cuba, but the Dodgers got him for $2 million. About six weeks later, as they shopped Fields, the Astros asked the Dodgers for Alvarez. The Dodgers balked — because they believed Houston wanted a different Cuban player, pitcher Yadier Alvarez, who had signed for $16 million.
The Dodgers agreed to trade Yordan Alvarez — Yadier has not yet reached the majors — and Charlie Gonzalez was overjoyed. Gonzalez, Luhnow’s senior scouting adviser, had tracked Alvarez closely and marveled at his advanced knowledge of the strike zone.
“A lot of guys are feast or famine — they’ll have big, raw power, but they don’t have a really good feel for hitting, they don’t recognize pitches and they’re not a good tracker of pitches,” Gonzalez said. “This guy slowed everything down in the box and stayed inside his swing. His mental composure was very mature for a kid his age.”
Alvarez had not played a game with the Dodgers organization at the time of the trade, but he advanced quickly through the Astros’ minor league system and impressed Manager A.J. Hinch with his presence and maturity this spring. Alvarez overwhelmed Class AAA pitchers — he batted .343 with 23 homers in 56 games — and arrived in Houston on June 9, swatting an opposite-field homer off a changeup in his debut.
“That approach — you look changeup, you get changeup, you stay on it and hit it 420 feet to left-center — that’s a good first start,” Hinch said. “As he’s gotten pitched a little differently and they move the ball around, he’s continued to draw his walks. He’s gone up with a very diligent plan and executed it.”
Alvarez was the A.L. Rookie of the Month in June — and in July. At 6 feet 5 inches and 225 pounds, he is close in size to the Hall of Famer Willie McCovey, another left-handed slugger who wore No. 44 and arrived at midseason. The San Francisco Giants called up McCovey in July 1959, and he hit .354 with 13 homers to win the Rookie of the Year Award.
McCovey, Carlos Delgado, Josh Hamilton, Dave Parker — pick your fearsome left-handed slugger, and so far, Alvarez fits right in. He is the Houston version of Gleyber Torres, the Yankees’ prize from that same 2016 trading deadline. The Yankees were also in selling mode that summer, trading reliever Aroldis Chapman to the Chicago Cubs for Torres, now a two-time All-Star infielder.
Chapman helped the Cubs win the World Series before returning to the Yankees as a free agent. Fields pitched well for the Dodgers but faltered against his old team in Game 2 of the 2017 World Series, allowing consecutive homers to Altuve and Carlos Correa in his only appearance.
The Astros were champions a few games later, and their chances for this year are greater because of Alvarez. They played the odds, they got a little lucky, but they got their man.
“You never really know, because there are always surprises out there, guys you thought should be doing better than they are,” Gonzalez said. “I felt really comfortable with him because I never saw him fail. I never saw a bad showcase, and he was always so consistent.
“Now, to this degree? I can’t say I expected that. This is monumental.”