Baseball, like film or literature, is a form of entertainment in which each participant, fan, or scholar has their own particular aesthetic tastes. Unlike those other art forms, baseball players and their actions can be evaluated objectively—through runs scored, wins, or wins above replacement—but everyone who enjoys the game, observes it, and internalizes it ends up liking certain players or classes of players more than others for reasons that have nothing to do with quality and everything to do with individual preference.
Personally, I like war movies but not horror. I like sci-fi novels but not fantasy. And I like to watch baseball players whose athleticism is evident in their quickness and coordination, like Andrelton Simmons and José Altuve, rather than size and strength. This is not a value judgment, merely a preference. But these are general statements, not absolutes. I like Alien and the Harry Potter series in spite of disliking the genres they come from. And while I’m not wild about big, beefy, immobile sluggers, I can’t get enough of Mets first baseman Pete Alonso.
Alonso’s performance practically begged for a callup last year. He hit a combined .285/.395/.579 in 574 plate appearances across Double-A and Triple-A. But the Mets waited until 2019 to promote their minor league Player of the Year. It looked like Alonso would have to wait until mid-April as the Mets delayed his free agency by a year, but New York brought him up on Opening Day, and received a .385/.429/.923 slash line and five home runs—including two in a loss to Minnesota on Tuesday—through 10 games in return.
The first time I saw Alonso up close was in a postgame scrum during his junior year at the University of Florida. My first impression was “what a large man this is.” Alonso played with seven first-round picks during his three years in Gainesville, including pitchers Alex Faedo (who’s 6-foot-5 with shoulders at least as broad as he is tall) and A.J. Puk (a 6-foot-7 lefty who drew comparisons to a young CC Sabathia). Alonso isn’t that big, physically, though his listed dimensions of 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds don’t really do him justice.
What I mean is that he takes up a lot of space. Alonso is robust and beefy, like the kind of person who builds log cabins in his spare time, or lifts log cabins, or plays a log cabin on a children’s television program. His neck is like what would happen if Mike Trout and Merton Hanks had a baby.
Baseball is full of young, muscular sluggers who look like they could tear a kitchen island in half with their bare hands, from Aaron Judge to Luke Voit to Daniel Palka. Like those players, Alonso hits the ball extremely hard. Through his first nine games, Alonso had barreled eight of his 22 batted balls, according to Baseball Savant, the second-highest rate in the league. His maximum exit velocity, 113.8 miles per hour, is tied for 10th in baseball. Not that you need those numbers when you can just look at his first career home run, a missile over the center field fence.
Alonso’s game is like what would happen if you ironed Joey Gallo. Gallo and Alonso share a physical presence at the plate and visible, almost tangible muscularity in their swings. Where they diverge is in their swings. Gallo sells out for power, and because of his immense strength, he is both a spectacular home run hitter and a hitter of spectacular home runs. Alonso’s swing is just as forceful, but more compact and level, like Judge’s or even Trout’s. The result is fewer ballistic upper-deck home runs but more screamers to the gaps and—the Mets hope—a higher batting average.
Yes, Alonso hit 36 home runs across two minor league levels last year, but he struck out just 22.3 percent of the time. That number will go up against big league pitching, but while Gallo hits somewhere around .210 with 40 home runs and 200 strikeouts, Alonso might hit .250 or even .260 with 30 home runs, 150 strikeouts, and 30 or 35 doubles, most of which will be hit hard enough to scatter the outfielders. And Brandon Nimmo, or whoever else hits in front of him, will score 100 runs a year.
It’s early in Alonso’s career, but the Mets appear to have struck pay dirt on a type of prospect that doesn’t pan out that frequently. Alonso hit .374/.469/.659 in his draft year, and seven of Alonso’s Florida teammates were first-rounders, as were Judge and Gallo. It’s not like he didn’t get noticed. But Alonso slid to the second round, 64th overall, by which point four other Gator players had gone off the board. How did that happen?
While Judge and Gallo can both play the outfield, Alonso is a right-handed-throwing, right-handed-hitting first baseman, which is a prospect profile that has almost zero defensive value. If Alonso was going to even make the majors, let alone turn into an impact player, he’d have to turn into a truly incredible hitter. The track record for right-handed college first basemen in the early part of the draft isn’t mixed, it’s downright depressing, even for guys who raked in college. Paul Goldschmidt and Rhys Hoskins panned out, but after that you’re talking yourself into C.J. Cron and marginal big leaguers like Christian Walker and Sam Travis.
Alonso, it appears—and it bears repeating that he’s less than two weeks into his big league career—is one of the rare exceptions. He’s the first baseman who hits like middle-of-the-order guys at every developmental level without missing a beat. Some of that prospect attrition process is unpredictable, but Alonso is particularly well-suited to the big league game. It’s possible to be a good college hitter, even a great one, and still lack one or more of the attributes necessary to punish big league pitching. Some hitters lack the bat speed to hit big league fastballs, the eye to hit big league breaking balls, or the strength to hit anything for power.
Alonso clearly has all three. Through 10 games he has 11 extra-base hits—off a list of pitchers that includes Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin (twice)—off five different kinds of pitches: fastball, slider, sinker, changeup, and curveball. Some hitters generate their most spectacular results by pouncing on a pitch, rotating their hips early, and just yanking it into the second deck on their pull side. A good example is Bryce Harper’s first home run with the Phillies.
Harper has incredibly quick hands and wrists but he clears his hips very early in that swing and comes out of his shoes trying to drive it. Contrast that to what Alonso did earlier that afternoon. Alonso’s first home run was a rocket, but it wasn’t his hardest-hit ball of the season: This double off Kyle Barraclough was.
Here, there’s no early hip rotation and a very quiet stride. Alonso just waits on the ball and flicks his wrists—he almost looks like Derek Jeter, if Derek Jeter chucked monster truck tires around the beach in his spare time. And despite that, Alonso is still strong enough to poke the ball off the right-center-field fence at almost 114 mph. Gallo hits the ball so far the outfielders don’t need to bother turning around. Alonso hits the ball so hard it bounces off the wall before the outfielders know they need to turn around.
During the next six months, the league will adjust to Alonso and he’ll have to refine his own game in response. There will be peaks and valleys—this is the way hitters mature. But we can judge him only on what he’s done in the past 10 games and how he’s looked doing it. And from that perspective, it’s hard to imagine things going any better for the Mets’ rookie first baseman. The man who looks like he could lift a house looks right at home against major league pitching.