Would Peter Alonso Outplay Jay Bruce?

The New York Mets are a treasure trove of interesting case studies. They’re a large-market team run frequently like a small-market one, a club that doesn’t always seem to consider the present quality of the team when making decisions about the future, an organization whose various departments — medical, public relations, etc. — don’t always appear to interact. Whatever they are, the Mess are never boring.

Fresh off rumors that the team is interested in pursuing, for their next general manager, someone who is less reliant on data, the team has recently caused the internet buzz again by choosing not to promote the team’s top first-base prospect, Peter Alonso. My colleagues Jay Jaffe and Sheryl Ring have already addressed the service-time games that involve Alonso, but I think it’s interesting to also tackle the situation by looking directly at Alonso vs. Jay Bruce as a pure baseball decision.

It’s a completely non-controversial opinion that 2018 has been a monster season for Alonso, one that has given him real hype as a prospect, something that was not a foregone conclusion entering the year. Even the ZiPS projections for Alonso didn’t quite see this comping, ranking him as the No. 2 Mets prospect coming into the season, the No. 3 first-base prospect in baseball, and the No. 99 prospect overall — all of which I believe were the most optimistic forecasts. Alonso started off the season blazing hot, hitting .408/.505/.776 with seven home runs in April for the Binghamton Rumble Ponies. That performance led to a mid-June promotion to Triple-A Las Vegas. Alonso struggled early there, hitting .171/.330/.368 with 29 strikeouts in 76 at-bats for the 51s. That was extremely concerning in light of the fact that, at 23, Alonso was not a young player at Double-A, but he hit .297/.367/.676 with 17 homers in 182 at-bats after the All-Star break.

Plus, there was that homer in the Futures Game.

Alonso’s 2019 projection changed considerably over the course of the 2018 season, and you can see the ups and downs of his minor-league performances this year by the month-by-month projections for 2019. No defense is included — minor-league defensive data is difficult enough already — and I’ve put everything on a 600-plate-appearance basis so it’s easier to compare.

Month-by-Month ZiPS Projections, Peter Alonso
2019 (Preseason) .242 .297 .457 554 70 134 35 3 26 82 32 137 3 101
2019 (After April) .246 .310 .466 545 74 134 31 1 29 87 41 142 3 107
2019 (After May) .243 .321 .464 535 76 130 27 2 29 88 49 149 2 110
2019 (After June) .238 .325 .456 529 74 126 26 1 29 84 55 153 1 110
2019 (After July) .230 .315 .449 530 75 122 25 2 29 86 54 163 1 105
2019 (Today) .238 .327 .481 526 78 125 28 2 32 93 58 173 1 116

You can see the effects of his early struggles in Triple-A and just how his late-season home-run surged changed things, even more than his early-season Binghamton performances. While I haven’t tracked it specifically, I feel comfortable saying that an 11-point OPS+ jump from six weeks’ worth of data is highly unusual. Overall, what you see is a player whom had some interesting power upside but was probably not prepared to play in the majors full-time on a (possibly) contending 2019 team.

Alonso nearly doubled his walk rate in the minors from 2017, which increased the probability that his OBP would rise to the acceptable range in New York. The strikeouts jumped, as well, but just like I told people to not be concerned about Kris Bryant‘s 29% strikeout rate in Triple-A in 2014, I’m not actually concerned about this.* When you’re slugging .600 and have an isolated power north of .300, if you don’t have Joey Votto’s plate discipline, you ought to be aggressive at the plate, lest you fall into the Jeremy Hermida/Ben Grieve trap.

*Please note that if you start telling people that Dan Szymborski thinks Peter Alonso is as good as Kris Bryant, you thereby waive all rights related to not being hit in the head with a large garden shovel by me.

Bruce’s 2019 projection has gone in the opposite direction of Alonso’s. Coming into the season, Bruce wouldn’t have been a candidate to concede time to Alonso, at least as long as there was any hope of the Mets contending. Bruce largely revived his career with his .254/.324/.508, 2.6-WAR 2017 campaign, but 2018 has been a nearly unmitigated disaster, with Bruce currently residing in the dreaded sub-replacement zone. While he can rightfully argue that hip and back problems caused him to miss a lot of time this summer, by the point at which he was given a few days off for back pain in mid-June, he was hitting .216/.297/.324 and had been healthy enough to play in 61 of the team’s 64 games.

Month-by-Month ZiPS Projections, Jay Bruce
2019 (PRESEASON) .252 .315 .474 544 73 137 31 3 28 97 50 134 3 111
2019 (After April) .251 .316 .467 542 71 136 31 4 26 99 51 134 5 109
2019 (After May) .248 .315 .449 541 69 134 31 3 24 91 53 133 4 105
2019 (After June) .244 .311 .437 542 66 132 30 3 23 89 52 133 5 101
2019 (After July) .242 .308 .437 542 66 131 29 4 23 88 53 135 4 100
2019 (Today) .245 .312 .448 542 67 133 30 4 24 87 53 134 3 104

In terms of the ZiPS projections for 2019, the 2018 season has resulted in a 22-point OPS+ swing in the Bruce vs. Alonso showdown. While the computer doesn’t think that Bruce is completely done, projecting a 104 OPS+ for him in 2019, that’s not particularly valuable, even if he shows an ability to play first base. Whether that first-base experiment — which represents the bulk of the club’s explanation for having not recalled Alonso this month — is a product of the club’s thrift or just incompetence is an open question. Players such as Matt Adams, Justin Bour, Brandon Moss, and Mark Reynolds have traveled to new locations essentially for free, so for most organizations, it’s difficult to make a case that playing first base gives a below-average bat much in the way of additional value, whether to a new or current organization. Hanlon’s razor becomes a more plausible explanation — especially when you consider that the team has shown belief in players like Jose Reyes or Jason Vargas without any obvious motive of CBA chicanery present.

As disappointing as the lack of Alonso is for an analyst, I believe I’d be even more disappointed if I were a fan of the Mets. Eliminate any questions about 2019 computer projections or collective bargaining agreements. After an 11-1 start, the Mets have been nearly unwatchable, and it’s hard to say that seeing a bunch of veterans makes the team any more palatable; seeing a slew of familiar names you remember playing much better in other uniforms is like finding out that you can watch all the TV you want, but it can only be AfterMASH or The Golden Palace. Alonso’s 2018 season was one of the few organizational highlights, and seeing just a glimpse of better times ahead is a lot more interesting than reliving the failures. The Mets’ decision to play Jay Bruce at first base down the stretch probably isn’t so much a an expression of the team’s parsimony as it is just a failure of imagination.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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3 years ago

There’s only one way to find out

3 years ago
Reply to  al_beast

Play them both at 1B at the same time

3 years ago
Reply to  Shauncore

Comment of the year.

david k
3 years ago
Reply to  tb.25

Don’t think the Mets hadn’t considered that!

3 years ago
Reply to  Shauncore

Catching! 2b/3b anywhere out of position!…that’s also a very Mestian thing to do, hah!

3 years ago
Reply to  Shauncore

One catches throws to the left of first one catches throws to the right. Best defensive first baseman in baseball. Degrom hustles over to play third base every time he releases a pitch. 9 men on field at all times.