The Cleveland Indians have signed their replacement for the recently beloved Carlos Santana, whose heartbreaking exodus has been covered beautifully at WFNY. Yonder Alonso just finished his age 30 season, in which he posted the best performance of his career, achieving some of the production many expected when he was a top prospect. On the surface, the power finally came as he posted 28 home runs and an .866 OPS. Alonso also finished 29th in all of Major League Baseball in wRC+, a metric designed to measure comprehensive run creation, 10th among first baseman and 15 percent better than that of Carlos Santana.
Of course, single season performances are not binding on future production and underlying causes must be reviewed to consider what can be expected from Alonso long term.
First: The contract. With the season described above, one might have expected Alonso to get a solid financial guarantee, but the Indians were able to acquire Alonso for an efficient cost.
Free agent 1B Yonder Alonso in agreement with #Indians on two-year, $16M contract, sources tell The Athletic. Deal includes $8M vesting option for a third year. Agreement first reported by @BNightengale.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) December 21, 2017
The question upon which the value of this contract rests, and ultimately Alonso’s future relies, is whether a hitter who never previously topped 10 home runs in the big leagues can be relied upon for the 25-to-30 home run production he demonstrated in 2017. That is, can any reasonable projection system or decision maker expect a player who never demonstrated power as a key offensive component now rely on it in a pennant race, with $16 million on the line?
The answer to this question is incomplete, and the information imperfect, but there is reason to believe that the Indians made a savvy, high-upside gamble on Yonder Alonso.
Prior to the 2017 season, Fangraphs Eno Sarris spoke to Alonso about what sort of adjustments he was implementing that were impacting his power output in spring.
“[I] did some mechanical things but also intent was important,” Alonso said in camp. “I’m trying to punish it more, get it in the air.” He agreed that aiming to put the ball in play in the air more was the major key for him this offseason as he worked.
The first fingerprints of Alonso’s evolution where in the Sarris’ column, an offensive profile change based on elevating the ball more frequently. Where these adjustments the basis for Alonso’s massive step forward?
In short: Yes.
Simply put, Alonso started hitting the ball in the air. More specifically, he began pulling it more than he ever did in his entire career, tapping into the raw power his 6-foot-1-inch, 230-pound frame could provide. In many ways, this sort of profile change presents significant challenges for projection systems which put substantive weights on prior years of production, and rightfully so.
Production systems are constructed around using as much data as possible to limit noise and constrict the player expectation closer to mean performance. Alonso has changed his entire repertoire, however. Much like a pitcher adding three or four miles per hour to his fastball, Alonso appears to have shifted the entire complexion of his game.
Further, Alonso has other useful offensive skills. Be it a solid walk rate or strong contact frequency, Alonso offers a patient eye and quality at bats. The question still torturing this signing is: Will Alonso’s power maintain in 2018 and 2019?
Unfortunately, the question cannot be answered, but the question is the basis for the affordable nature of the contract. The elevation revelation is a new concept in many ways, having been popularized in 2017 to create productivity and being a part of the home run spike. Hitters who achieved success due to launch angle adjustments will have to face counters from pitchers, and the fate of the players is unknown. Further, potential alterations to the baseball itself could deflate this revolution. A “juiced ball” certainly improves the value of the fly ball.
One may wonder if Alonso’s second half, which was still strong, but a major crash from his first half was the result of pitchers figuring him out. His fly ball percentage did decline, and home runs did as well, but both remained significantly above his career average. Further, the sample is simply too small to conclude that the reductions reflected pitchers having figured him out. This is the heart of the Indians gamble.
Derek Florko a strong analyst/coach noted that a possible cause for the second half downturn was pitchers actively pitching away to Alonso.
Adjustments pitchers made to him pic.twitter.com/w2xAAoZeeZ
— Derek Florko (@SaberCoach) December 21, 2017
Florko raises an important point, but it remains a question whether Alonso will counter this adjustment. The mere pitcher counter does not mean it was the root cause of second half downturn or that it cannot be rectified inside Alonso’s new approach. Once again, this is the nature of the launch angle gambit.
If Alonso hits 20-30 home runs a year for the next two years while carrying his solid contact and on base skills, the Indians will have covered 90 percent of Santana’s missing production at half of the cost. There is a significant chance that his will happen.
Still, there is a similarly significant chance that Alonso’s second half indicates a counter move by pitchers to undermine major gains in his swing and launch angle adjustment. In this case, the Indians deal with Alonso would be neutral, or even under water. This is a probability and adjustment gamble by the Indians bearing some obvious risk.
Finally, the Alonso signing has two other issues. First, this means another year in left field for the oft-injured Michael Brantley. Second, Alonso is a mediocre defender at first base, a skill Carlos Santana had developed. The Brantley issue is serious but would be the case no matter who the Indians signed to play first base, and likely reflects the issue with that decision individually rather than a failure in the Alonso signing. Second, defense is very difficult to measure at first base, and not particularly important at first base as compared to other positions on the diamond.
The reality is that the Indians are making a gamble that Alonso’s adjustments have fundamentally changed his productive ceiling and will provide as much as $15-20 million in value at the cost of just $8 million. The gamble could fail, with Indians fans thinking back to the Brandon Moss caper of yesteryear but with a seemingly constricted spending ceiling, Alonso is an outstanding gamble to make.