There was a time, long ago, when yours truly was so aboard the hype train for a certain young Mets slugger that he preposterously suggested that said slugger could become the franchise’s future home run king. To be fair, the Mets aren’t exactly known for having an illustrious history of mashers. Darryl Strawberry, the franchise leader, heads the pack with just 252 homers after all. Still, we all know how things turned out professionally for poor Ike Davis. The “Future Mets HR King” ended his MLB career *pitching* in 2017 for a Dodgers rookie level affiliate.
By now most of us have learned that you shouldn’t fall in love with prospects because they’ll usually break your heart. We also know that early success doesn’t necessarily portend sustained success, even if it happens at the major league level. We should, perhaps, pump the breaks just a bit to see how the player adjusts to the league adjusting to them before anointing them the franchise savior. It’s through this lens that we briefly examine the sophomore season of one Pete Alonso, future…well, let’s keep that hype train in check for the time being.
Alonso burst onto the scene in 2019, earning the starting job at first base as a rookie and top-rated prospect at the position. Given this rare opportunity (at least for the Mets), all he did was break the rookie single-season home run record and set the high-water mark for the franchise with 53 dingers en route to winning National League Rookie of the Year. Not too shabby.
The natural question following a dominant rookie campaign relates to an ability to continue that performance into the next season. Would Alonso continue to dominate, or would he succumb to the precipitous second-year drop in performance colloquially known as the dreaded “sophomore slump.” Spoiler: he did see a drop in performance, but he was still pretty good during a pandemic-shortened season. Below is a selection of his stats for 2019 and 2020.
Counting stats like HR and RBI are obviously going to be suppressed during an abbreviated season, but the nearly identical BB and K percentages are good indicators that Alonso maintained a consistent approach across seasons. There is a noted drop in his triple slash that should be a bit concerning on the surface, but the drop in BABIP and a smaller sample size may go a long way in explaining that reduction in results.
An interpretation of the sophomore slump that I’m inclined to agree with, at least in theory, involves a regression to the mean with a particular focus on luck. A player that performs so well that they garner Rookie of the Year honors (and break several records along the way) is likely benefiting from some well-timed luck in combination with their elite skill set. As we can see with the significant drop in Alonso’s BABIP rate (which was already below league-average), it’s likely that luck played as much of a role in his less impressive 2020 performance as it did during his amazing rookie year.
There are other statistics we can analyze in an attempt to piece together a narrative for Alonso’s sophomore performance, of course. His HR/FB ratio went from 30.6% in 2019 to 24.6% in 2020 at the same time his hard hit and line drive rates dropped. He appeared to miss more on pitches outside of the strike zone in 2020, though he didn’t swing at them much more often. Pitchers also appeared to bust him inside with cutters more often in 2020, a pitch he had less success with than in his 2019 breakout. These all appear to be signs of a player making adjustments to adjustments, though, and none of them signal that Alonso was overmatched during his second tour through the league.
We also have to keep in mind that these percentages map to relatively small raw numbers over 57 games and 239 plate appearances, and it’s unfortunate that the environment didn’t allow Alonso the reps to normalize the rates that under normal circumstances may be potential warning signs. It’s certainly possible, even likely, that his record-breaking performance was the well-timed culmination of ability, good luck, and the effects of what may be a modern live-ball era that can’t be replicated.
Alonso will likely never again be quite as good as he was in 2019, but the Mets don’t need him to continuously break records for him to be a core component of their next winning team. In the midst of a uniquely challenging season, he did not succumb to the trappings of what we know as the sophomore slump. Outside of reproducing his 2019, that’s probably the best possible outcome of the 2020 season for both him and the team.
Is Alonso the next Mets legend or, dare I say, home run king? In the spirit of baseball’s time-honored tradition of being cognizant and respectful of superstition, perhaps we shouldn’t poke that polar bear just yet.