Coming into the 2019 season, there were many things for Mets fans to be optimistic about, even after the disappointment that was their 2018 campaign. In early December, the new front office completed a blockbuster deal acquiring Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano, signaling an all-in effort to compete in 2019. They further strengthened their bullpen by signing Justin Wilson and re-signing Jeurys Familia, as well as bringing in infielder Jed Lowrie, who was coming off two of the best offensive seasons of his career. Apart from new faces, there was plenty of young talent on the roster in the form of Brandom Nimmo, Zack Wheeler, Michael Conforto, and Jeff McNeil, that could be primed for a breakout in 2019. Nevertheless, up until a few weeks ago, most fans had come to terms with the fact that New York’s most exciting prospect, the power-hitting Pete Alonso, would start the season in the minors so the Mets, not unlike the other 29 organizations in the league, could secure an extra year of service from one of their potential superstars. And yet, as Spring Training came to a close, some teams chose to start their seasons with their brightest stars on the Opening Day roster.
Alonso made noise throughout the minor leagues in 2018, hitting a combined 36 home runs between AA and AAA ball, with a combined slash-line of .287/.397/.579. His red-hot Spring Training left many Mets fans believing that he could provide a much-needed offensive boost to a team that finished a mediocre 18th in wRC+ last season. The season is hardly over a week old at this point and already these beliefs are manifesting themselves into reality. As with any article invoking statistics this early into the season, I am obligated to mention the trap of small-sample size. It would be ridiculous to make any significant conclusions about certain players or teams based only on ten or so games worth of data. Nevertheless these plate appearances are just as significant as plate appearances in August, so a careful analysis can still provide insight into a given player’s performance. Plus, I’d really like a chance to gush about the player who has had me glued to my television during every second of his at-bats, so let’s dig in.
Instead of using the classic rate statistics like batting average, on-base percentage, and even weighted on-base average, which have high variance at the beginning of the season, the most sensible way to discuss Alonso’s early 2019 dominance would be to look at the overall quality of contact he is achieving during his at-bats. Baseball Savant labels contact of the highest quality a “barrel”, which are balls hit with an exit velocity of at least 98 miles per hour along with some restrictions on the launch angle of the hit based on its exit velocity. As of Monday April 8, Alonso has already accumulated 8 barrels, which ranks 3rd in all of baseball, behind only Gary Sanchez and Mike Trout (and also ahead of Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich, who are also off to incredible starts). Michael Conforto led the 2018 Mets in barrels with 37, a mark which Alonso is over a fifth of the way towards surpassing only ten games into the season. Examining further, let’s take a look at the pitch chart of Alonso’s barrels thus far.
He has made quality contact on pitches both on the inner and outer half of the zone, with all pitches showing up in the bottom half of the zone. Or should I say almost all pitches in the bottom half of the zone, since one pitch above stands out as being noticeably out of the strike-zone. That pitch was a well-placed slider from Patrick Corbin on Saturday that the Mets first-basemen rocketed into the left-field corner for a double.
Somehow that ball left the bat at 112.2 miles per hour, Alonso’s third hardest hit ball in 2019. For reference, the Mets hit 3 balls that hard during all of 2018. Already, it seems like his elite power is unique among Mets position players, and it has the potential to be unique among all major league hitters. I used Baseball Savant’s search tool to see how many pitches that far below the strike-zone were hit with an exit velocity greater than 112 miles per hour in recent history. Over the last three seasons (2016-2018) precisely two such pitches were hit that hard, one in 2016 off the bat of Miguel Cabrera, and one in 2017 hit by C.J. Cron. While it is certainly true that a hitting coach would still recommend any hitter take the pitch Alonso scorched down the left-field line, every team would prefer to have someone at the plate who can adjust to pitches that fool them and still make quality contact.
As the gif above suggests, Alonso has demonstrated an ability to make quality contact on breaking pitches, a skill which few rookies have. On the six breaking pitches Alonso has put in play this season, he sports an insane 105.8 average exit velocity on these batted ball events. To put this into perspective, below is a list of the top 5 players who hit the most breaking pitches at an exit velocity of 105+ miles per hour last season.
Alonso is on pace to join the list above, which only consists of five of the best power hitters in all of baseball. While many rookies learn to hit the fastball early on in their major-league careers and are then forced to adjust as opposing pitchers go to their breaking pitches more often, Alonso has already showed an impressive ability to make quality contact on major-league breaking balls. This observation could be key to making sure he does not experience a spike in strikeout rate as pitchers experiment with throwing the rookie fewer fastballs. As the season continues, if pitchers are unable to strikeout Alonso with breaking pitches out of the zone, they will be forced to pitch in the zone more frequently which has the potential to lead to a big rookie campaign for Alonso, and perhaps only the third 40 home run rookie season the league has ever seen.
Featured Image: Minda Haas Kuhlmann, Flickr