October 25, 2020

Monday Mets: For Mets Sake

“It’s getting late early”. This quote is often attributed to Hall of Famer, Yogi Berra. And whether or not he actually said it, or something very close to it, it is an accurate description of where we are at this point in the season. Despite the fact that Opening Day was less than seven weeks ago, there are only thirteen Mets games remaining in the regular season. And while playing beyond that is not impossible, they’re going to need a hero to get them there. The question is, where is Pete Alonso?

Let’s get something straight – what Pete Alonso accomplished last year was not limited to his home run record and Rookie of the Year honor. While his play alone would have been enough to endear him to the Mets faithful, his personality has made him nearly boo-proof in Queens, and deservedly so. His “LFGM” chant last year, while teetering on vulgarity, gave new life to the as-old-as-the-team mantra. His walk-off antics upped the ante on post-win celebrations. His push, last year and this year, to get Major League Baseball to soften their stance on preventing the Mets from wearing first responder caps, helped convince the league to allow the team (and the Yankees) to don the hats for the first time in over a decade. In other words,  between last season and this year’s whatever-it-is, Pete Alonso has made himself a vital part of New York baseball, and has earned himself a reasonable amount of fan patience, a commodity in this town. That said, the only thing he hasn’t done so far, is hit consistently; and he’s going to need to start doing that immediately for the Mets to make the postseason.

Today is the final off-day for the rest of the year. Tuesday begins the Mets final home stand. Or, to put it more plainly, time is running out. That the Mets are still able to challenge for a postseason berth when they’ve really only had one dependable starting pitcher all season (albeit Jacob deGrom) is a near-miracle that can be attributed to Michael Conforto, Dominic Smith, Robinson Cano-ish, and perhaps most importantly, the fact that more than half of the teams in each league will make the playoffs in some capacity. Still, to date, Pete Alonso’s 2020 performance, just one year out from being truly remarkable, has been remarkably disappointing. His 11 home runs have him tied for 19th in the majors. More importantly, his 26 RBI’s rank him as 47th “best”. In 55 at-bats with runners in scoring position, he is batting .218 with as many strikeouts as RBI’s (16).

Alonso has certainly had some clutch moments, including his first career walk-off home run, a memorable one against the Yankees, in the Mets first game since the announcement of Tom Seaver’s passing. This past Wednesday, he had another late-inning home run that proved to be the game-winner against the Baltimore Orioles. While those moments provided hope that Alonso was on the verge of breaking out of his season-long slump, they have been merely stand alone highlights instead. His shortcomings, however, have been more common: unproductive at-bats with runners on third and less (fewer) than two outs, double plays, and strikeouts galore (he leads the team with 51).

The Mets have tried to find ways to help Alonso out of it. They’ve tried to strategically move him around in the lineup (he’s batted 2nd through 6th so far this season), they’ve used him as a DH so that he could focus solely on hitting (while utilizing the usually sure-handed Smith at first base), and they even brought back Todd Frazier, who seemed to act like something of a mentor to Alonso last season before leaving for Texas as a free agent this year. Frazier is an interesting situation when it comes to Alonso. He is not only a power-hitting righty with a strong clubhouse reputation, he also has the potential to serve as a cautionary tale for Alonso. Despite playing in just 128 games in his 2012 rookie season, Frazier’s slugging earned him serious consideration in the Rookie of the Year race, even though the award went to the seemingly inevitable winner, Bryce Harper. Frazier appeared to be on the road to becoming a top power hitter in the game. And while his home run numbers did improve year after year, culminating in a 40-HR season in 2016, the rest of his offensive stats declined pretty sharply, leading to multiple trades and backup roles. I like to imagine  a conversation between Frazier and Alonso that resembles a scene from the 1998 high school comedy “Can’t Hardly Wait”, in which the current high school stud (Mike) meets a previous high school stud (Trip) and soon learns that early success guarantees nothing.

That said, it’s not like Alonso would really need this lesson. He doesn’t appear to be taking last year’s accomplishments for granted. If anything, he’s been pressing all season. And while that is an oft-cited excuse for a batting slump, there seems to be some cause for it in Alonso’s case this year. Manager Luis Rojas recently said that pitchers have been throwing him more inside fastballs this year, which subsequently leads to his chasing breaking balls that are outside the strike zone. Hence, strikeouts galore.

If the Mets are going to contend for a playoff spot, they’re going to need Pete Alonso to do a better job of adjusting to the way he’s being pitched. In fact, they’re going to need him to do a better job of just about everything. With only two weeks left, a return to last season’s dependability would be a case of “better late than never” for the Mets, and might just be enough to propel them into October.