It was both unrealistic and unfair to expect Pete Alonso to match his unprecedented rookie season, when he broke the single-season rookie home run record and the franchise’s single-season home run mark after launching 53 long balls in 2019. In a year where he was expected to start the season in the minors, he forced his way into the lineup with a terrific spring and never looked back, slashing .260/.358/.583 while driving in and scoring over 100 runs and posting a .323 ISO, a 143 wRC+, and a 4.8 fWAR over 161 games en route to a Rookie of the Year award and a seventh place finish in NL MVP race.
It is not all that surprising that he suffered a bit of a step back in his second season in the majors, hitting .231/.326/.490 with 16 home runs, a 118 wRC+, and a 0.4 fWAR in 57 games during the shortened season. Those numbers, on the surface, aren’t that bad as far as sophomore slumps go—if you stretch his home runs out to a full season, he was on pace to be in the mid-40s, which is where you’d realistically expect him to finish—but his final line was really boosted by a strong September run. Alonso looked completely overmatched at the plate through large portions of the year, flailing at pitches outside of the zone and generally looking more uncomfortable than we had ever seen him.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic shut down MLB for over four months, Alonso struggled during spring training. After his took the world by storm during the aforementioned 2019 spring training, he struggled in 2020 before play was halted, hitting just .244/.244/.289 in 45 at-bats. He did not hit a single home run in 14 games and struck out nine times without drawing a walk. He was never able to settle into a groove, and when play resumed in July, he carried his struggles with him into the season.
Through his first 18 games of the season, he was hitting just .197/.329/.303 with two home runs, a 30.4% K%, and an 86 wRC+. On August 12, he had one of his best games of the year, going 3-for-5 against the Nationals with a home run, two doubles, three runs scored, and three runs driven in, which catalyzed a two-week hot stretch that saw him slash .294/.415/.618 with three home runs and a 164 wRC+. During that span, he posted a 19.5% K% and a 17.1% BB%, and he looked a little bit more like the old Alonso.
Over his next nine games, he would collect just four hits in 30 at-bats to drop his OPS to .722 and his wRC+ to 96 on the season. That brought us to September 3, one night after the world learned of the loss of Tom Seaver. The scuffling Alonso provided his signature moment of the year that evening, launching a lead-off, two-run home run against the Yankees in the tenth inning to cap off a come-from-behind victory. In the rain, the excitable Alonso let out his emotions as he ran for first and rounded the bases following the dramatic moment, and the walk-off soon became even more memorable for Howie Rose’s emotional reaction in the radio booth.
A must see!— New York Mets (@Mets) September 4, 2020
Watch @WayneRandazzo’s call and @HowieRose’s emotional reaction to @Pete_Alonso20’s game winning home run. @wcbs880 pic.twitter.com/TGWLEnAxXu
That night provided a boost to Alonso that helped him salvage the rest of his season and improve his overall numbers. Including that night, he hit .266/.326/.646 with nine home runs and a 157 wRC+ in his final 21 games. That stretch, specifically the last week or so of the year, was the closest Alonso looked to the budding superstar fans had fallen in love with during his remarkable rookie season. He closed the season with a much more respectable 116 wRC+, whereas he was hovering right around 100 for much of the year.
When exploring his numbers in each of his two seasons, it’s hard to properly gauge what exactly went wrong. His K% dropped from 26.4% in 2019 to 25.5% in 2020, and his BB% also dipped slightly from 10.4% in 2019 to 10.0% in 2020. His BABIP dropped from .280 in 2019 to .242 in 2020, so he could have gotten a little unlucky last year, and this might have generally evened out a bit more over a longer season. In terms of his plate discipline, his O-Contact%, which measures how often a hitter makes contact when swinging at a pitch outside of the strike zone, was the only stat that saw a sizable decline, dropping from 62.0% in 2019 to 54.2% in 2020.
His Oppo% actually rose last season, as he hit 25% of balls in play to the opposite field as opposed to 17.5% in 2019, though he still pulled over 40% of balls in play. Meanwhile, his Hard% dropped significantly, from 42.2% in 2019 to 31.8% in 2020, and, according to Statcast, he went from the 73rd percentile to the 61st percentile in the latter. His biggest Statcast drop came in Expected Weighted On-base Average (xwOBA), where he went from 89th percentile in 2019 (.373) to 56th percentile in 2020 (.336). His xSLG dropped from the 90th percentile in 2019 (.537) to the 67th percentile (.455) last season.
One of his most noticeable drops came against left-handed pitching. In 2019, he slashed .240/.354/.587 with a 141 wRC+ in 150 at-bats against south paws. In 77 at-bats last season against lefties, he hit a much more pedestrian .194/.299/.418 with a 91 wRC+. His numbers against right-handed pitchers suffered a more modest dip, from a 143 wRC+ in 2019 to a 131 wRC+ in 2020.
There’s also a non-scientific reason why Alonso might have struggled that last year that cannot be proven or disproven by analytics. The Polar Bear has always seemed to revel in the excitement of the fanbase, especially during the latter half of the team’s 2019 run, and he seemed to cherish playing in front of a larger and more boisterous Citi Field crowd. The lack of an audience last year certainly affected everybody, but it’s easy to see it having a particularly negative effect on Alonso, who fed off the energy of the fans every single game. Another thing that should help Alonso this year is the return of hitting coach Chili Davis, who was remote all of last year due to COVID-19 concerns. Alonso spoke about his excitement at having Davis back, and how he aided him in 2019, when he joined the Amazin’ But True Podcast last December.
If you’re looking for positive signs, look no further than spring training this year, where Alonso has been crushing the ball and seems much closer to his 2019 self than ever before. He has gotten off to a scorching-hot start in spring training, slashing .400/.500/.867 with three home runs and five doubles in 30 at-bats over his first 12 games. His most impressive feat of strength came on March 19, when he scolded a double that came in at 114.4 mph off the bat. This has had Mets fans more than excited at the prospect of Alonso recapturing his 2019 form.
Alonso enters his third season looking to prove that he’s more like the player we saw in his rookie season rather than the player we saw in 2020. Fans returning to Citi Field should help, as should the return of the club’s hitting coach. Similarly, having Francisco Lindor on the squad should help take the spotlight off Alonso, who no longer needs to be the lone star. This year’s lineup is far more balanced than it was in 2019 or 2020, so the pressure should be off a bit.
It’s hard to envision Alonso matching the numbers he put up in 2019, but there’s every reason to believe he will be far better this season. If he can find a happy medium between his unprecedented rookie campaign and his mediocre sophomore season, the team could be in for a great year.