Through his first 50 games of the season, Pete Alonso has demonstrated that rumors of his demise in 2020 were greatly exaggerated. To be fair, any claims of Alonso’s demise after he put up a perfectly fine 118 wRC+ last season were misguided, but there were reasons for concern watching Alonso scuffle through much of the abbreviated 2020 season. Those concerns should be mostly gone now.
In 2020, Alonso chased bad pitches, hit poorly against breaking balls, and showed a lot of frustration at that plate one year after unveiling one of the greatest rookie performances of all time. He eventually found his swing, finishing the season with 16 home runs, good for third in the National League, but his considerable decline in production stood back among many Mets batters putting up career years at the plate.
This year, however, the scenario has flipped: Alonso currently stands as the only healthy core player with an above-average offensive season for the first-place Mets. And though his counting stats are not as impressive as they were in his rookie season, the underlying metrics demonstrate that Pete is every bit the hitter he was in 2019.
Alonso is currently barreling 17% of his balls in play. Not only is that the highest percentage of his career, but it also ranks eleventh among players with at least 100 balls in play across baseball. His barrel barrage has lead to a career-high 92.6 mph average exit velocity, also in the 90th percentile across baseball, and a .373 xWOBA, 34th in the league and also the best of his career.
Much of this success comes from Alonso’s pitch selection, which has simultaneously become smarter and more aggressive. Alonso is swinging at the first pitch in 39.5% of his plate appearances, an increase of more than six percentage points from 2020 and more than eleven from 2019. As well he should: 60% of pitches he sees on a 0-0 count are fastballs, which he crushes to a tune of a .388 xWOBA. Not letting the count get deep has an added benefit of fewer strikeouts, which Alonso has lowered by three percentage points since last season.
Alonso hits best against fastballs, but he has also greatly improved hitting breaking balls, raising his xWOBA from an ugly .282 in 2020 to a perfectly fine .349 this season. His swing rate in the zone has also risen to a career-high and his chase rate has dipped to a career-low. Alonso swinging earlier, more often, and more in the zone on better pitches is leading to better contact, higher exit velocity, fewer strikeouts, and a formidable middle-of-the-lineup bat.
Better pitch selection has helped Alonso quite a bit, but possibly a bigger influence on his production has been slight changes to his mechanics. In 2020, Alonso included a higher front leg kick and a raised load to his swing, showing more pre-swing movement. Alonso now stands slightly more upright this year than he did in 2020 and has also lessened his leg kick and load.
His mechanical changes are very subtle, but they should theoretically allow Alonso a quicker swing and more time to stay back, which would explain his massive improvement hitting breaking balls. Standing taller in the box also allows him to better reach high fastballs, which have become a fashionable and effective tool for many pitchers in the last few seasons. Alonso has retooled quite a bit about his approach (possbily with the help of a certain “coach”) and is hitting the ball much better than he did in 2020 as a result.
It is worth noting that despite all of these improvements, however, Alonso’s hits aren’t leaving the yard. His ten home runs currently lead the team but don’t even come close to the top of the league leaderboard, which he occupied quite frequently in his first two seasons. If Alonso is hitting just as well as he did in 2019, where are the dingers?
Unfortunately for Alonso, his home run drought may be mostly out of his control. As was reported by The Ringer, the Mets installed a humidor for the first time last season, and Statcast’s Park Factors now list Citi Field as the seventh most pitcher-friendly park in the majors and by far the most pitcher-friendly in the division. While this has helped the Mets pitching staff develop into a juggernaut, Alonso’s numbers bear this as an unwelcome change: Of his ten home runs this season, nine have been hit on the road.
Widespread use of the sticky stuff also merits discussion. Alonso has already claimed it doesn’t bother him, or at least not as much as MLB doctoring its baseballs to influence offensive production and deflate upcoming free agent salaries, but it seems to be bothering every hitter and it’s hard to say Alonso is an exception. His wRC+ is ten points higher than it was in 2020 despite his slugging percentage being 28 points lower, and that’s entirely due to a historically low year for offense across the majors.
If the balls retained their consistency from last year, and if Alonso kept his nearly 50-50 home/away home run split from his first two seasons, he’d likely crack the home run leaderboard and almost certainly be celebrated as one of the best hitters in the league this season. But for someone whose value comes primarily from extra-base hits, it matters quite a bit that Alonso isn’t hitting home runs as often as he’s used to. Luckily for the Mets, however, Alonso has shown great strides elsewhere on the field.
Though the metrics disagree on the nature of his improvement, the eye test shows that Alonso has significantly improved at first base this season. Much of this has to do with better defensive positioning, and much of it also has to do with all-world infielders Francisco Lindor, Luis Guillorme, and José Peraza throwing him balls. But it’s been impossible to ignore the diving plays, better stretches, and hustle plays that have made Alonso look like a perfectly competent infielder.
The book on Alonso coming into this season wrote “bad defense” in bold print at the top of every page, and his -4 and -5 outs-above-average his first two seasons demonstrate that well. Baseball Savant now records Alonso’s OAA at 0, an acceptable level for a power-hitting first baseman, and nowhere near as bad as Freddie Freeman’s -3 OAA (what happened to him??). For the record, UZR hates Alonso, giving him a -17.7 UZR/150, by far the worst of his career. And while he still might have cinder-block feet and oven-mitt hands, watching Alonso play the position now feels much less painful than it has the past two seasons. Perhaps Fangraphs needs a bit of a tweak, or it at least has some explaining to do.
It’s clear Alonso made defense a priority this offseason, but he also made PR less of a priority, and it may be helping the young player navigate expectations in the media capital of the world. In the midst of his historic rookie season, baseball writers were already lauding him as a future captain and the face of the franchise, as if being the best power hitter the organization had developed since Daryl Strawberry wasn’t enough for him. It can be reasonably assumed that the pressure of expectations weighed too heavily on him during his sophomore slump, and he responded by deleting his social media accounts and speaking less to the media during the off-season.
But with Francisco Lindor signed for the next ten seasons, Alonso no longer has to be the best hitter on the team, or the face of the franchise, or the best hope for the team’s success. He can still occupy all those roles if he wishes, or he could simply be the goofball that mashes a lot of taters. As far as the youngest generation of talent goes, he’s no Ronald Acuña, or Fernando Tatís, or Juan Soto, but he doesn’t have to be anymore in order for the Mets to win a World Series. He can just be Pete, and that’s more than good enough.
If Alonso maintains his defensive improvements and hits the ball exactly as he has this season, there’s no reason the Mets should consider anyone else as the long-term option at first base. He’s become a smarter and more aggressive hitter, hampered this season only by factors out of his control, and at times has single-handedly carried the Mets’ struggling offense. His star may have burned a little too brightly as a rookie, but at this pace over a long-term stretch, he might go down as the greatest first baseman in franchise history. Sorry, Keith.