Defending Yonder

It’s difficult being the band that follows Led Zeppelin.

In San Diego we were the beneficiaries of multiple All-Star caliber seasons from Adrian Gonzalez. And then, one day, he was gone, leaving a black hole at first base. Of course, it was supposed to only be vacant for a short period of time as Anthony Rizzo, part of the haul the Padres received for Adrian, was due to take over. Then the front office went through a complete change and suddenly the GM who brought Rizzo here was in Chicago and Josh Byrnes was here, eager to put his stamp on the team’s lineup. He did almost immediately in dealing Mat Latos for, among other players, a first baseman who was blocked in Cincinnati by Joey Votto.

In San Diego he was likely blocked by Anthony Rizzo as well. A simple enough fix as Jed Hoyer traded for Rizzo for the second time in his life. This left Yonder Alonso, standing alone at first.

It’s important to note that none of this is Yonder Alonso’s fault. Sure, Alonso has faults. Here’s one:

Fans aren’t sold on Alonso however. Last season, during the brief stretch of time that Kyle Blanks was A) raking; B) healthy, fans were ready to bid adieu to Alonso for good. Naturally, and unfortunately, Blanks got hurt. As is his pattern. I suppose there’s an argument to be made that a move to first base for Blanks would limit his likelihood of getting injured. Maybe that’s true. But there’s no way to know that.

But more importantly, Alonso hasn’t been bad. This is the part that is more difficult to grasp. He hasn’t shown the power that was predicted back in 2009. The doubles you know about but that hasn’t been followed by HRs. The fence modification, believed to benefit Alonso more than anything, had virtually no effect. In part that was injury related, which we’ll get to in a bit.

What he has shown is plate discipline and knowledge of the strike zone that was predicted. Don’t believe me? In his rookie season (2012) Alonso was 2nd on the team in walks (62) and third in OBP (.348). That OBP was good for 7th in MLB amongst first baseman (4 points better than Adrian Gonzalez).

His 2013 was not nearly as good as it was hampered by a nagging wrist injury. Despite the injury zapping what was already a minimal power output and later his ability to hit the ball with any level of authority, it didn’t affect his eye as he continued to draw walks and find his way on base (.370 OBP in the 2nd half of 2013).

As a defender he’s no where near what Adrian Gonzalez is or, for that matter, Rizzo. He’s better then he was though and he’s far from an iron glove at first.

If the Padres are to contend in 2014, and that is at least better than a puncher’s chance of happening, in part it will be because they get a full season of Yonder Alonso. And a 2012 type season from Alonso is a solid addition to a lineup that is already looking better and healthier than it has in years.

The Padres abandoned one first baseman after basically one season and there’s no question that was a mistake. Abandoning another when that player has only had one full season in the Majors under his belt is equally foolish. Moreover, Alonso is an asset. Will the power come? Who knows? He’s still inexperienced and has time to develop. And if it doesn’t, is that the end of the world if he continues to get on base and hit the ball in the gaps? I’d say no. There is a belief that first basemen should hit for power. Attaching certain offensive traits to a position vs a person feels archaic though. When the biggest power hitter in Seattle plays second and the best hitter in Minnesota is behind the plate, what does it matter what position the offense comes from?

Fans were rightfully upset when Adrian Gonzalez was traded and were rightfully upset when Rizzo was traded. It’s time to move past the anger over that and move forward. Because the first baseman the Padres have isn’t so bad. You just have to give him a chance.

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  • For me, it’s not that Alonso is “bad.” It’s that he projected as and will most likely be a second-division player. Unfortunately, power is kind of a necessity for a 1B and Alonso’s lack thereof leaves a giant void in the lineup. Therefore, Blanks – or really anybody that could consistently provide even average production against LHP – become not just a good complimentary piece, but a necessity as he can’t carry the load himself.

    • VM David

      This, with the addition that following Adrian Gonzalez also has nothing to do with how I view Alonso.

    • Geoff Hancock

      But why does it matter what position power comes from? As constructed, power numbers will likely come from LF, WB, and EB theoretically. If Alonso gets on base and hits doubles, isn’t that an asset?

      • It matters because it’s dependent on the Padres filling that need elsewhere, where it’s arguably more of a luxury (expensive) than an ingrained trait for somebody at the position. It also means the team is tasked to backfill those deficiencies in his game with additional roster spots and expenses, something they aren’t necessarily privy to. It’s the scarcity of power, and Alonso only contributes to that.

        While his 39 doubles in 2012 ranked 4th among 25 qualified 1B, his .120 ISO was the 4th-lowest. Not to mention that his .348 OBP would have, in any other year, left him well outside the Top 10 at the position. Alonso’s lack of power puts the burden on him making up for it elsewhere, and he has yet to prove that he can really do that.

        Does this mean he should get a shot to prove he can improve upon his 2012? Absolutely, and there’s not really anybody else that can challenge him for a full-time shot at the position. But I’d say you’re still looking at the same player we thought he would become when he was acquired: a second-division player who can, every so often, flash as a fringe Top 10. That’s not “bad,” but it certainly provides room for improvement.

  • John Wright

    One thing (admittedly among many) I do not like about people defending Alonso is the blanket statement “he hits doubles.” It seems the same to me as when people claim the team is built around defense: maybe it was true once, but is not necessarily the case any more.

    So, I went and looked at the rate at which Alonso hits doubles. (Using 2B/PA — don’t know if this is a real stat but seems relevant to me.)

    In 2011, he hit doubles 4% of PA, 2012 at 6%, and 3012 at 4%.

    I looked at only one player, obviously not randomly chosen. But Adrian Gonzalez over the same years hit doubles 6.3%, 6.8%, and 5% of his plate attempts. AGon has also hit double digit home runs.

    (For whatever it is worth, doubles were hit in all of MLB at the rate of 4.4% of PA in 2013.)

    So, is Alonso’s single year excelling at doubles hitting worth defending? Maybe. But I don’t think you can say he hits doubles as if it were a fact, and that this fact makes him a good player.

    You likely are right that it would be wrong to move him at this point, and that we therefore should hope he has an excellent year. But to say we’re stuck with him and so we should be happy with what we’ve got and not look for a way to improve … I just can’t do that.

    To end on a positive: you are right in pointing out his above-average OBP skill. I wasn’t really aware of that before this article.

    • Geoff Hancock

      I’ll be the first to admit that Alonso is no AGon. Then again, few are. I don’t put a ton of value on his 2013 considering he played so much of it hurt. Cherry picking a bit? Sure, I just think his 2012 season is a clearer picture of who he is. Keep in mind he has basically a year and a half of MLB experience so gradual improvement in all areas seems likely. It took Headley 4 years to find the power people expected. To me that 6% in 2012 is the most accurate. Though I could be totally wrong.

      I’m not saying we are stuck with him as that implied he’s a bad player. I’m saying he’s wildly underrated, in part due to who he’s following on that position.

      • Billy Lybarger

        Why should we assume improvement? He will be 27 this season. How does he improve all facets of his game when he has 6 professional seasons under his belt that basically show he is who he is?
        The Padres are however, stuck with him as they have no prospects at 1B in the minors.
        Also, he is not wildly underrated. He is not compared to Adrian Gonzalez in anyone’s mind. He is often compared to Anthony Rizzo, and if you wish to put that one to rest, i am all for it. But I think the Padres need to at least think about adressing improving prodcution from 1B. Take a look at Fangraph’s Oliver projections for Alonso. The 5 year projection is just awful.

      • Geoff Hancock

        If he shows zero to minimal improvement in 2014 then I’m with you. Time to look elsewhere. I’m not ready to do that after less than 2 seasons at the ML level. That’s too reactionary to me.

        I am all for putting anymore Rizzo talk to bed.

      • Change the Padres

        The Padres did get Alex Dickerson from the Pirates, somehow. I actually think he may be the Padres 1B to start 2015.

      • John Wright

        I’m okay saying that 2013 was a down year because of injury. But using 2012 as a baseline: Alonso posted a 1.4 WAR. His slightly above baseline offensive production was the result of a decent OBP and an excellent production in a single area: doubles — which he had not posted before and did not come close to the year after. Furthermore, that doubles production was not paired with the other XBH you would expect to go along with those in an above-average hitter. For 2012, these positives were also weighed down with abysmal baserunning and below-average defense, resulting in that very average WAR.

        From what I can tell, in limited statistics I’ve looked up today — a 6% doubles rate seems extremely high, and would only be expected in the best players. I would not predict that for very many guys in the league, and certainly not for a player that doesn’t have any other supporting indicators.

        The comparison to Headley should be more about how unfairly he has been perceived over his time with the Padres. Headley’s doubles rate has always hovered in the 5-6% range (even in his “down” years), and has been supported by superior OBP, defense, and good baserunning.

        It is not fair to compare Alonso to AGon. But I don’t think it is wrong to desire all-star level production from any position, especially when you are currently getting league-average at best from it.

    • Also worth noting, while Alonso’s .348 OBP ranked 7th among qualified 1B, his overall offensive numbers paled in comparison to the rest of the league. An OBP is only worth so much if the offensive contributions are otherwise lacking, which is why he ranked below average at his position for both OPS+ (14th of 19) and wRC+ (17th of 25) among qualified players.

      And while there’s been a sharp downturn in offensive production overall, and at 1B specifically, over the past decade that could lend credence to the argument that there’s been a renewed interest in the well-rounded player, the first basemen averaged a .330 in 2012. That’s the lowest it’s been since 1968. Yonder looked good by comparison in that sense, but it was a pretty low bar.

      • Geoff Hancock

        It was also his rookie season. Stands to reason he’ll improve.

        That’s,an interesting point about overall offensive production at 1st. And I see your point. The flip side is that he can’t be replaced by a first basemen from 10 yrs ago so is it really fair to compare him to past production? Compared to his peers/competition hes at or above average, even if those numbers historically aren’t good.

      • Fair points, but improve on what exactly? It’s fair to assume that he didn’t peak his rookie season, but I’m not sure we should just look at those 39 doubles and assume those remain constant, either. Perhaps that rate returns to normal and the power output improves slightly. I’d say that’s a fair bet, but given his production to this point I’d say the overall offensive profile still needs to improve dramatically if it’s going to be above-average overall.

        Not that the two are identical cases, but I’d say Alonso’s wrist injuries are similar to Maybin’s in that they both present a degree of skepticism over long-term production. There were already questions about his power prior to this, and I’d say it’s simply no guarantee that Alonso improves in all facets of his game in an upward trajectory.

        My point wasn’t so much to prove that his numbers were down from the production of the greats from yesteryear, but to show that a .348 OBP is quite modest even by today’s standards – it just happened to be fortuitous in a down year. For example, If he were to replicate that rate in 2013, he would have been square in the middle of the pack.

      • Amish_willy

        Here’s how Alonso & Headley’s age 25 & 26 seasons match up:

        Alonso
        25 – .273/.348/.393 (108 wRC+) 10% BB, 16.3% K
        26 – .281/.341/.368 (100 wRC+) 8.5% BB, 12.5% K

        Headley
        25 – .262/.342/.392 (104 wRC+) 10.1% BB, 21.7% K
        26 – .264/.327/.375 (98 wRC+) 8.3% BB, 20.6% K

        I sure wish he didn’t get drilled in the wrist. The homerun production was up from his rookie year, having hit his 6th homerun in his 43rd game after needing 122 games in the 2012 season to surpass that figure. Power wasn’t the same when he came back, so hopefully the off-season of rest gets him back to that point.

        His ability to make more contact then say, a Headley, has me pretty eager to see how these upcoming years play out.

  • Change the Padres

    “When the biggest power hitter in Seattle plays second and the best hitter in Minnesota is behind the plate, what does it matter what position the offense comes from?”

    Those are two awful teams. They are awful, in no small part, because they don’t have production at 1B. If you recall, Minnesota was good prior to losing AL MVP Justin Morneau to a career-altering injury. The last time Seattle was over .500 was 2009 when, non-coincidentally, their 1B (Russell Branyon) had a career year…posting a 130 OPS+ and 31 HR in a canyon. Saying ‘those two shitty teams have shitty first basemen, so why do you bother’ is basically the least convincing line of logic I’ve ever heard.

    “Despite the injury zapping what was already a minimal power output and later his ability to hit the ball with any level of authority”

    That is an assumption. Seeing as Yonder has never – since leaving the U – hit the baseball with power, I don’t see how you can unilaterally decree that it was the injury that caused no power output. To borrow a line you used on Blanks’ injury: “Maybe that’s true. But there’s no way to know that.”

    The bottom line with Yonder is this: no team will be winning the World Series with him at 1B. It requires an unbelievable production recoup from other positions where position scarcity dictates really, really expensive players. Yonder would be good if, and really only if, he played 2B. Cue Bryant’s .gif.

    (This isn’t to say he can’t improve, but it’d defy what any of the projection systems are saying will happen.)

    • Geoff Hancock

      No team will win the World Series is a bit of hyperbole, no? Belts 2012 was marginally beteer in slash line, less HR, yet he started the majority of games at first for a World Series winning team. To say it will NEVER happen is a leap.

      Can Quentin, Headley and Gyorko make up for his lack of power? I think they can.

      • Change the Padres

        The Giants got a .368 OBP/.437 SLG out of 1B in 2012. Alonso is at .346/.395 in his career.

        So your argument is that ‘if Yonder Alonso has the best season of his career while every other Padre has a great season to make up for Yonder’s lack of production even in his career year, then you can’t say NEVER!’. Got it.

  • GoldenBoy

    Everybody needs to chill out and give Yonder a chance in 2014. I could easily see him batting .300 with close to a .400 OBP and hitting around 18 HRs. That production would be more than fine with me.

    I’m a believer in Yonder, and I think he will improve. If everyone wants to bring up his limited sample size of stats, let’s not forget his 2011 season, .943 OPS in 98 PA.

    See what Yonder can do this year, and then pass your judgment.

  • Billy Lybarger

    Revisiting this post now makes me laugh and cry. I think there is no defending him now. It is time to move on, but unfortunately, the Padres have no replacement anywhere in the system. Next year is going to be very difficult to add a 1B and a 3B.