The dreaded sophomore slump is a phenomenon that seems to affect athletes across all sports and especially baseball. Our friends over at Bat Flips & Nerds did a breakdown on this last year before the 2020 season that was simple yet effective in breaking down the performance of Rookie of the Year players over the last decade.
If you look at the picture above from Bat Flip & Nerds piece, Alonso’s decline was not as extreme as Wil Myer’s decline but optically many fans would think it was! When you dig into the numbers his “decline” is much more in line with both Ronald Acuna and two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani’s “slumps”. We saw Alonso’s OPS+ drop from 147 to 123 for a net drop of 24 points. Meanwhile we saw Acuna drop 22 points and Ohtani 30 points, so we see Pete’s “slump” falls somewhere in between two other elite hitters “slumps”. The optics that a LOT of Mets fans can not seem to get out of their head is Alonso swinging and missing at the down and away slider over and over and over….
But were those optics exactly that? Just optics? Lets dig in…
In 2019 Pete obviously had a historic year as he broke the rookie HR record previously set by cross-town giant Aaron Judge. The one thing that in my mind and the minds of others really separated Pete from your traditional pull happy 30-40HR guy was his ability AND willingness to hit up the middle and to the opposite field. In fact in 2019 no hitter hit more home runs up the middle or to the opposite field than Pete Alonso’s 28. Over HALF of his home runs came when not pulling the ball. The hitters behind Alonso in HR of that variety in ’19?
When Alonso is at his best, like he was in 2019, no park can really hold him with his ability to hit for power to all parts of the park. Pete’s HR totals alone do not show just how impressive he was hitting to the opposite field or how integral it was to his game.
As you can see above Pete was top 10 among all hitters who hit the ball up the middle or to the opposite field. This approach is something that waned a little bit down from the first half to the second half as Pete was approaching the rookie home run record. Pete’s opposite field percentage dropped 4% from almost 20% to barely over 15%. Over that same time period we saw his batting average from .280 to .235. Of course there is more to this, such as how pitchers approached Alonso in the second half after establishing himself as one of the best hitters in baseball in the first half of 2019. So we saw Alonso’s approach change throughout 2019 but how did it carry over to 2020?
The helium and expectations for Pete Alonso were as inevitable as the infamous sophomore slump some would say. He is coming off a unanimous Rookie of the Year season and 53 home runs. There were many fans who’s expectations were yet another 50 home run season and as someone who looks at and studies the numbers its hard to say those were fair expectations. His ’20 projections still did project him to be an elite hitter averaging anywhere from 39-48 home runs dependent on the projection system. His OPS was projected to be anywhere in the high .870s all the way to almost .920. So not only were fan expectations high but by all accounts so were the expert projections. Pete initially struggled in the abbreviated ’20 spring training which was almost a complete 180 from his excellent ’19 spring training that catapulted him onto the opening day roster. He batted only .244 over 14G, hitting only 2 extra base hits and not collecting one walk or home run. Sure it was a VERY short sample size but simply by looking at Pete, he was pressing. What player wouldn’t under the same circumstances especially after dominating the Grapefruit League just a year prior? When the REAL season started, Pete quickly found himself at the plate a lot with RISP. For the months of July-August Pete Alonso faced the 3rd most pitches with RISP. The results themselves were not pretty as seen below.
There are several factors that created these early struggles. Alonso swung and missed at a lot of pitches with RISP, which helped create the aforementioned “bad optics”. Not only was Pete struggling but Pete was struggling at the WORST times. Only three hitters in all of MLB swung and missed at more pitches with RISP.
A weird group no? You have speedy free swingers like Mondesi and Robert as well as established hitters like Chapman, Ozuna, Lindor and Castellanos. But swings and misses were not the only issues that frustrated the feared slugging Pete Alonso. Over the same time span, Alonso was struggling with getting underneath balls. He had five balls classified as “pop-ups” with RISP in the first half of the season, the only other player in MLB who had more was Nolan Arenado(6). But not everything was unlucky for Pete Alonso he was actually only one of SEVEN hitters who hit at least two pop-ups to have one fall for a hit, courtesy of the terrible Red Sox bullpen!
There were several times early in the season where we thought Alonso was coming out of the slump, yet would find himself faltering yet again. Then September came around… Pete Alonso found himself as one of the best hitters in baseball during the month of September and he got hot by being more aggressive. He started consistently hitting the ball in the air and with power that he was missing in the first half. Even Pete’s outs in the second half we started to see more of the “Peak Pete” we started seeing more hard hit flyballs and line drives to right field. Pete was still getting under a lot of these pitches as they were hit hard but often too high so they turned into routine outs but the change in approach was palpable and explains the increase in production that we saw from Pete. Alonso quietly hit the second most home runs in baseball over the last month of the season hitting 10, with two coming in the very last game. While it might have been harder to notice inside of a short season with such a slow start Pete Alonso DID turn it around, you don’t have to believe me though.
2019(Full Season) – .384 wOBA
2020(September) – .384 wOBA
While it is true that Alonso did fall victim to the “sophomore slump”, what I think is not said enough is it what not as severe as it appeared and also if not for the shortened season likely would have been even less so with how hot Alonso ended the season. While he may never become a .300 hitter or ever hit 50HR again, Alonso can be, and will be a premier power threat in the game. He is just not any ordinary slugger though, Pete envisions himself as a student of the game who is capable of learning and evolving. To see this you do not have to look any further than the notebook that he’s used since his college days. Where he writes down each pitcher, how the AB went, what he was thinking at the plate, and more. The infamous notebook probably had more chicken scratch and notes after the early struggles but it’s what you do with those struggles that determine what happens next.
Pete Alonso has endeared himself to fans and to the game as much for his likability and relatability as his majestic towering home runs. He has shown that with his size and skill he is an elite-level athlete. Professional sports are full of elite-level athletes though. It is Pete Alonso’s mind and work ethic that have separated him from the pack. When fans ask why I am not worried about Pete Alonso after his “sophomore slump”, my answer?
His work ethic didn’t.
Photo from NBC Sports