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Big Pete and unexpected developments

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Pete Alonso has bucked trends and developed into one of baseball’s most productive and fun hitters.

MLB: New York Mets at Chicago Cubs Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Pete Alonso has been a Met for three months. In that time, he’s already hit the longest home run I’ve seen hit by a Met at Citi Field, two Saturdays ago, when he hit one off the facing of the third deck. (Unfortunately, I was at The Adam Dunn Game too, so it isn’t the longest one I’ve seen anyone hit there.) He’s on pace to shatter the club record for home runs in a season—not the rookie record, which he’s already broken, but the overall record. He’s probably going to threaten the major league rookie home run record, too. He is the singular best reason to watch the 2019 Mets.

And the first time I saw Alonso play as a professional, I didn’t think he could hit at all.

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I could probably just pretend that I never thought any of this. Alonso was, in fact, so unremarkable in his first pro season that I simply never wrote up any thoughts about him at all off 2016 looks. I suspect if you listened to a hundred hours of podcasts you could probably find me talking about him, but who has time for that?

Anyways, I didn’t think he could hit, and I’m going to tell you why. I’ve told the story of this particular game outing itself before, but not the Alonso part. It was July 2016, and the then-Peter Alonso was playing for Brooklyn, about two weeks into his pro career. I was at a Cyclones game with Jeffrey Paternostro and Greg Karam to see Thomas Szapucki, who had picked up a lot of buzz in Kingsport. The best position player prospect on the field was, in my estimation, Desmond Lindsay by a fairly substantial margin.

I have notes on Alonso from that game and a few more later in the Penn League season, but honestly, he wasn’t of great interest for me. He looked extremely like a guy with a metal bat swing beating up a competition level similar to or worse than what he’d played against in the SEC. You see a lot of unremarkable college power bats in the minors.

I should probably explain the “metal bat swing” part of this a little more, because it’s a continual thing with Met drafting and player development. The further away you get from the majors, the less attenuated “things you need to do to have offensive success at your current level” and “things you need to do to have offensive success at the MLB level” are. That may initially seem counter-intuitive, but the conditions of baseball change at each level.

At the college level, hitters use metal bats, and pitching, defense, and even field quality is wildly inconsistent. This tends to promote swing profiles geared towards hard but low angle contact to all fields; think an Eric Campbell offensive profile. That kind of attack needs to be paired with elite barrel control to work at the highest levels of pro baseball, but it doesn’t need to be to work in college with metal bats, hence the “metal bat swing.” (At the extremes, this is known as the “Stanford swing,” although Stanford itself has drifted away from it since a coaching change before the 2018 season.) This is the main reason draft evaluators put such an emphasis on performance and looks from summer wood bat leagues, such as the Cape Cod League; they are designed to be closer to pro ball.

The Mets have drafted metal bat swing guys a lot this decade. Their next three picks after Alonso in 2016 were “polished” college bats that have greatly struggled to hit the ball hard enough with wood, and one of them is already out of organized baseball. In 2017, they literally took hitters from Stanford in the third and fifth rounds.

In college, and continuing into Brooklyn, Alonso set up with his front foot “in the bucket” (angled towards third base instead of the pitcher), and while his leg kick brought it briefly forward, he then stepped back in the bucket. This isn’t an uncommon setup for college power hitters, but it rarely works in pro ball — it creates off-balance contact that doesn’t lead to success against well-located velocity and spin. It also tends to be really, really hard to get rid of that trait as a successful college hitter moving into pro ball. When you hear prospect writers talk about the perils of the right-handed college power prospect, this sort of stuff is why.

In Brooklyn, Alonso looked like every other polished college performer Mets draft pick that would go on to flame out with wood bats. And I basically wrote him off, the same as David Thompson the year before or Quinn Brodey and Matt Winaker the year after. Sometimes you’re right, and sometimes you’re extremely not.

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The two best teams in the Double-A Eastern League in 2017 were the Trenton Thunder and the newly-rechristened Binghamton Rumble Ponies. The Rumble Ponies didn’t have a regular designated hitter, in part because only around half of their games used a DH; pitchers hit in Double-A games between two NL affiliates. But Trenton is a Yankees affiliate, and thus they needed a DH going into the playoffs. The St. Lucie Mets were a million games out of it, so their first baseman got promoted for the last two weeks of the season and the playoffs to serve as Bingo’s primary DH: Peter Alonso.

Trenton is one of two parks where I keep a full-season credential, so hitting up the playoffs was an obvious plan for me. I had heard enough vague buzz about Alonso from the second half in the Florida State League to be looking forward to seeing him, but I was far more excited for Trenton’s roster. Justus Sheffield was still hanging around, Estevan Florial had been promoted for the playoffs, and Clint Frazier was down on MLB rehab. Binghamton even had other guys that were just as noteworthy as Alonso; this was the summer of Adonis Uceta and Ty Bashlor buzz, and I was as excited to see Luis Guillorme as Alonso.

But it was Alonso that popped off the field immediately. He no longer had the unusual setup, and was instead quiet, balanced, and short to the ball for his size. His raw power jumped closer to the 70/80 line for me, and he was showing off an advanced approach and mashing the ball hard all around the park. I couldn’t go crazy crazy because it was only a two-game look, and we had a lot of contradicting evidence that Alonso wasn’t that great, including other in-person reports, and some times you just see a player’s best performances. One of those points was even in that series itself: he was DHing so Matt Oberste could play first. Would you really DH a tip-top prospect for Matt Oberste?

Still, I wasn’t shy about being the high guy on Alonso that offseason. I wrote in our Mets top ten that he had “legitimate star upside” and might keep mashing right through the majors, which isn’t usually a thing you say about a 23-year-old first baseman who has barely played above A-ball and was more very good than dominant there. I said on our podcast, and even hinted on Twitter, that I thought Alonso would quickly eclipse Smith as the first baseman of the future.

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A future role 6 grade is throwing a marker down that you think a player might be a star. The 2018 Binghamton team, as it stood when I saw them in June, had one player who that made a whole lot of sense for: 2016 first-rounder Justin Dunn, promoted after a dominant run in St. Lucie. But I didn’t like Dunn’s command profile or offspeeds as much as others, and wasn’t that high on him, much to the chagrin of Mets Twitter (in several senses of that term).

Instead, I threw a 6 on two other guys: Jeff McNeil, as you may have heard about, and Alonso, who was every bit the player I’d seen the previous September and then some. The plus-plus raw power was now 80 raw power, and crazy exit velocity anecdotes were starting to spread around the baseball community. The swing changes stuck. He was absolutely dominating the league, and call-up discussion was already swirling.

It would have to wait until Opening Day 2019, unfortunately. But it was clear already that Alonso was bucking developmental trends.

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It’s a little early to actually call Alonso a present role 6 player — he hasn’t really established a level of MLB production quite yet. I might even end up being a little bit low; his current production is closer to a role 7 than a role 6. We can reconvene in a year or two and talk about that.

Still, we have enough to make certain conclusions. He’s already one of the game’s premier power hitters. He is, indeed, an emerging star. And it turns out that his skill at hitting to the opposite field, which initially looked like a negative, has led him to be an unusually well-rounded hitter for a player with his power. He’s able to consistently drive the ball very, very far to right-center for majestic dingers.

Pete Alonso is here, and he’s fun. Enjoy it.