The Indians have their Carlos Santana replacement.
On Thursday evening, Cleveland agreed to a two-year, $16 million deal with air-ball revolution poster boy Yonder Alonso. The contract includes an option for a third season.
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
There were a number of potential first-base fits for Cleveland in a deep class that included other left-handed options like Matt Adams (who reached a one-year, $4 million deal with Nationals), Mitch Moreland (two years, $13 million with Red Sox) Lucas Duda, and Logan Morrison. Eric Hosmer’s ask, and perhaps inconsistency, likely pushed him out of consideration for the club.
Whether the Indians enjoy the first-half version of Alonso or the second-half one could determine whether they have picked the best value option from the class or just a so-so replacement for the excellent Santana, whom Dave and this author liked as the top free-agent first baseman available. Writing for The Athletic in November, I selected Alonso as the top value fit for the Indians’ first-base void.
We didn’t have to do much searching to learn that Alonso had designs on joining the merry band of fly-ball revolutionaries in 2017. He told Eno he was planning to do so last March.
“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.
Eno found this older side angle of Alonso to demonstrate his flatter swing:
And compared it to video from last spring with the A’s, after Alonso had added loft to his stroke:
The approach worked: Alonso produced career bests in on-base percentage (.365), slugging (.501), home runs (28), and wRC+ (132). Always in possession of a discipline approach, it became elite last year, Alonso posting an elite 13% walk rate. That could help fill the loss of Santana’s plus-plus batting eye. His discipline profile held steady across the season:
First half: 13.1 BB%, 23.2 K%
Second half: 13.0 BB%, 22.0 K%
While the new approach added some swing and miss to Alonso’s profile, it helped him crush fastballs.
Here’s Alonso’s slugging per fastball offered at in 2016:
And in 2017:
But the approach didn’t work evenly throughout the season. In the first half, Alonso slashed .275/.372/.562 with a 146 wRC+. (146!) In the second half, he slowed down, posting a .254/.354/.420 line and 113 wRC+. He was still better than a league-average hitter but he cooled.
What changed were his air balls. There was a strong correlation between his fly-ball rates and wOBA throughout the season.
What went wrong for Alonso in the second half? Alonso told Eno he was suffering through a timing issue.
“Just a little bit of timing issue right now,” he said last week. “Pitches I was hitting right I’m just missing — Late, early, just missed the ball.” Before he trailed off, he added something interesting: “I’ve been hitting a lot more foul balls.” …
Alonso says that he has a plan to fix the issue: “I’m working, doing the net drill. I feel like it’s about to come back.”
Indeed, the data provides some evidence for Alonso’s self-assessment, indicating a decline of his launch angle, particularly those balls launched in that 20-30 degree sweet spot where most home runs occur. Alonso told Eno that disrupted timing might also show up through his uptick in foul balls.
|Month||Avg. LA||Air%, 20-30 Degrees||Foul%|
Can Alonso get his first-half profile back? If so, he could produce significant value.
It might necessitate the addition of a platoon partner. Alonso produced a wRC+ mark of 142 against righties and 80 against lefties last season. For his career, he’s recorded a 113 wRC+ versus righties and 84 against lefties. (Part of Santana’s charm, as a switch-hitter, is that he always had the platoon advantage, which allowed for more roster flexibility. Nevertheless, the Indians love platoons and have led the sport in batter platoon advantage five times in the last six seasons.)
Alfonso could also benefit from a change of environment. His 2017 wasn’t just about hitting the balls in the air: Alonso also pulled more of his fly balls, recording a career-high 23.6% of pulled fly balls, a six-point increase over this 2015-16 mark and well above the 18.2% mark for this career. Progressive Field is favorable for left-handed pull power.
His defensive performance could also improve in Cleveland.
Alonso produced the worst two defensive campaigns in 2016 and 2017, posting his first negative DRS (-3, -9) and UZR numbers (-1.1, -3.3) of his career. They were also two seasons in which he spent the majority of his time in the spacious Oakland Coliseum.
It’s possible that some of Alonso’s defensive metrics could improve by a move away from Oakland, as he will not be concerned with guarding a large swath of foul territory like he was in Oakland. UZR does not account for foul balls, but if you are a defender at third or first in Oakland, you have to be concerned with the amount of territory to cover. That consideration could alter positioning, which could negatively affect UZR and DRS score, which are heavily dependent upon range factor.
It made sense for the Indians to come to an agreement with one of the left-handed free-agent first basemen available. We’ll have to see if they’ve acquired the first-half Alonso or the second-half version. In either case, they have a player who is intent on lifting the ball into the juiced-ball jet stream. In a game becoming more extreme, they have a player who is trying to swim with the game’s current, not against it.