Early in my Mets’ fandom the club’s biggest power threat was John Milner, nicknamed The Hammer. He was a nice little player but he really wasn’t much of a HR guy. But the Mets then were known much more for pitching than hitting. And then the club acquired Dave Kingman. And if there was one thing Kingman could do, it was hit homers.
Even though Kingman gave the Mets a dimension they sorely needed, it was easy to want something more. He didn’t do a lot more than hit homers. The frustrating thing is, a young lad thought, was that he could have been a better player if he just wanted it more. Maybe that was naïve of me. But he was talented enough to be a pitcher, skilled enough to be a decent bunter for a guy his size and he was a good runner, at least his first go-round with the Mets.
Recently a thought occurred to me. If Kingman was a player today, with his natural skills, better coaching and perhaps an agent to help light a fire under him – he would be Pete Alonso.
A lot of you are throwing up in your mouth right now. You think he’d be Joey Gallo or Russell Branyan or Rob Deer. Those are decent comps for the player that Kingman was in the 70s and 80s. But that’s not the premise here. What if instead of being content with being a feared power hitter, Kingman maximized his skills and became the best baseball player he could be?
The best stat for measuring offensive production is wRC+. You may have seen this stat referenced here but not exactly sure what it is. The stat credits the value for each outcome (via Linear Weights) rather than treating all hits or times on base as equal, while also controlling for park and league environments. There’s no extra reward for playing in Coors Field or penalty for playing in the deadball 1960s.
Kingman had a 145 wRC+ in 1979, the season he hit 48 HR. Alonso’s best season so far is the 144 wRC+ he put up in 2019, the year he hit 53 HR. But Alonso also had a 143 last year, a 138 mark right now and a 133 in 2021. In Kingman’s 14 seasons where he played at least 100 games, his next best wRC+ was the 131 he put up in 1978. He had six seasons with a mark of 104 or under. He had the ability – he was just missing the consistency, the drive that Alonso has.
Yesterday, David Hong wrote an article where he speculated that Alonso would end up as the Mets’ all-time best position player. It’s not an unreasonable take, even if I disagree with it. The club has had some really, really good players suit up over the past 61 years. The problem is that there hasn’t been a guy to play 12-15 years at a high level. Jose Reyes and Darryl Strawberry left as free agents while David Wright got hurt.
Alonso could be that guy, the one who doesn’t leave and the one who doesn’t have his career derailed by injuries.
The issue is that you can make a stronger case for Brandon Nimmo.
If we compare Nimmo to Alonso, we see their wRC+ marks are very similar, despite them being very different players. Alonso’s homers are incredibly valuable. But so is Nimmo’s ability to reach base. Regardless of how they accomplished it, here are the three best wRC+ numbers for the pair, along with their lifetime results:
PA – 144, 143, 138 – lifetime: 138
BN – 149, 148, 137 – lifetime: 134
Not a lot to choose from here, in terms of raw production. But there are several other things we have to take into account, not the least of which is: Would you rather get this level of offense from a 1B or a CF? There isn’t a person alive who wouldn’t pick the latter. Which leads into the next point, which is what do the players do when they’re not in the batter’s box? Hitting is important – the most important thing, if we’re being honest. But it’s not the only thing. How do they rate in defense and baserunning?
To answer that we have to move beyond wRC+ and go to WAR. Lifetime, Nimmo holds a 19.4 to 12.7 edge in fWAR. But that’s not fair, as Nimmo debuted before Alonso. If we only look at their production from Alonso’s ROY season forward, 2019-2023, we see the gap close considerably. Nimmo still leads, but it’s only by a 13.2 to 12.7 margin.
The reason it’s not bigger is because of Nimmo’s missed time in 2019 and 2021, along with his sub-par production upon return to the lineup after being sidelined those seasons. The relevant question is if Nimmo can avoid injuries, even if they’re not as debilitating as Wright’s back turned out to be. It’s tough to be the best in franchise history if you’re missing multiple months every other year.
Yet it’s not like Alonso doesn’t have an issue or two. We generally think of power hitters aging well, not necessarily losing that skill once they hit the early-to-mid 30s. But with so much of his value tied up in homers, what happens to Alonso if he has some Jose Abreu-type of power outage? Abreu has gone from 30 HR at age 34 to 15 HR at age 35 to 0 in 131 PA at age 36 here in 2023.
The Mets sure dodged a bullet not signing Abreu this past offseason to be a power bat for three years.
And the other big question surrounding Alonso is one that people can’t quite fathom. What if the new analytically focused front office under Steve Cohen doesn’t want to extend him with a Nimmo-length contract? Fans are quick to hand out nine-figure deals to all of their favorites. But just like Michael Conforto priced himself out of a long-term deal with the Mets, it’s among the possibilities that Alonso does the same.
There’s been no talk of either how many years or how many dollars that Alonso will want as he gets closer to free agency. Maybe he’s dead set on getting Nimmo’s eight years. Or perhaps he doesn’t care about length but wants an AAV of $35 million, which would dwarf the AAV of Freddie Freeman ($27) and Paul Goldschmidt ($26), the current 1B leaders.
My sincere hope is that Alonso is a career Met. But there’s a point where that simply doesn’t make sense. Yet if we’re going to speculate on someone being the best position player in franchise history, we have to at least consider the possibility that one of the contenders may not be a career Met. We know Nimmo is going to be here for the duration of his time as a productive player. We don’t know that yet about Alonso.
But let’s assume that Alonso and the Mets make an agreement and he’s here for the rest of his career. Who’s going to age better – the power hitting 1B or the athletic CF? Who’s going to be able to avoid injuries better – the guy who had seasons cut short two times already or the guy who’s been healthy each season?
And perhaps one other thing should be a consideration. Will Alonso be able to make up the ground he’s already behind Nimmo? He’s younger, so that portends well. But if they both keep up their career pace and play the same number of years, will Alonso be able to make up the 6.7 fWAR he currently trails Nimmo when those seasons will come at the end of his career? It’s one thing to put up a combined 7.3 fWAR in your age 26-27 seasons, like Alonso did in 2021-2022. Can he do that in his age 36-37 seasons?
There have been six players in MLB history who have put up at least a 6.8 fWAR at age 36-37 who were at least nominally 1B. They were:
That’s four Hall of Famers, a guy who had Hall of Fame numbers but who failed a drug test and a guy who hit 85 HR at age 36-37. It would be great if Alonso joined this group. However, it’s not a wager anyone should make.
And regardless if you prefer Alonso or Nimmo in this discussion, it’s important to remember how good the current franchise leader was. Wright had a 51.2 lifetime fWAR, including an 8.4 mark in 2007. He had six seasons with an fWAR greater than Alonso’s current best. Odds are that neither Alonso nor Nimmo are going to unseat Wright as the best position player in franchise history.