Yonder Alonso Doesn’t Hit Like a First Baseman

I’ve had the pleasure of writing Yonder Alonso’s player comment in each of the last three Baseball Prospectus annuals, and it has become my custom to compare him to other players. Here are the career statistics (through August 27) of those players and Alonso:

Player/food PA BA ISO BB% OPS+ wRC+
Lyle Overbay 5802 .266 .163 11.0 106 105
Bruce Bochte 5994 .282 .114 10.9 113 112
Denny Walling 3287 .271 .119 9.4 107 108
Yonder Alonso 1793 .271 .119 9.0 107 105

I’m leaving out many columns here, but this gives some idea of the types of information I find useful in describing a hitter. Batting average has its limitations, of course, but still tells us how often someone gets base hits. ISO, which is batting average subtracted from slugging percentage, gives a good indication of a player’s power. BB% shows a player’s ability to reach base via walk. The advantage to using ISO and BB% over SLG and OBP is that they remove batting average from the equation, leaving only the component that we wish to examine. OPS+ and wRC+ are added at the end to provide an overall feel for the level of hitter.

It’s clear at this point that Alonso lacks Overbay’s power. My original hope that Alonso would be that type of hitter was both a low bar and one that he has failed to reach. Bochte likewise seems overly ambitious due to the batting average and walk rate. This leaves Walling, who was a decent enough player in his day and whose numbers are alarmingly close to those of Alonso.

What Walling wasn’t, however, was a starting big-league first baseman. And that got me wondering: Has anyone with Alonso’s offensive skill set had a long career as a starting big-league first baseman?

Spoiler alert: no.

Using very tight ranges (ISO between .114 and .124, OPS+ between 105 and 109, BB% between 8.5 and 9.5, minimum 1,500 plate appearances), I found the following names:

Player Years PA BA ISO BB% OPS+ wRC+
Harry Rice 1923-1933 4248 .299 .122 8.9 105 104
Mickey Rocco 1943-1946 1721 .258 .114 9.0 106 106
Denny Walling 1975-1992 3287 .271 .119 9.4 107 108
Yonder Alonso 2010-2015 1793 .271 .119 9.0 107 105

Rice was primarily an outfielder who split time between center and right. Modern defensive metrics aren’t kind to him, but who knows how accurate those are for guys who played 80+ years ago. Regardless, someone who plays a lot of center field generally has more defensive value than someone who plays only first base. Plus Rice had a monster 1925 that Alonso is unlikely to ever sniff. This isn’t the best match.

Rocco played first base, which is encouraging. He started for the Cleveland Indians for three years and was adequate. He lost his job in 1946 and spent the final six seasons of his career in the minor leagues, mostly the PCL. What happened? Well, guys returned from World War II. One was Les Fleming, who had hit .414 at Nashville in 1941 before spending the next two years working in a shipyard. Fleming got his old job back, and with his arrival came a one-way ticket to the farm for Rocco. Aside from the war circumstances, there are many similarities between Rocco and Alonso, who is also perpetually in danger of losing his starting job as long as he has one.

Finally, Walling remains an uncanny fit. The key difference is that he never got more than 422 plate appearances in a single season. He also had more defensive utility, splitting time between all four corner spots. He wasn’t a great hitter but was good enough to find a home on big-league benches through the ’80s, plus a little more at either end.

This was going to be the end of my analysis, but I had a discussion with reader Didi, who suggested that I expand my parameter ranges. So I did, because it was a good idea. I searched for players with an ISO between .109 and .129, and with a BB% between 8.0 and 10.0 (OPS+ range remained the same). This yielded 27 names. It would be unwieldy to provide a table listing all their numbers, so instead here is a list with names, dates, and primary position:

  • Smoky Joe Wood 1908-1922, RF
  • Gus Williams, 1911-1915, RF
  • Billy Southworth, 1913-1929, RF
  • Rube Bressler, 1914-1932, LF
  • Ira Flagstead, 1917-1930, CF
  • Earl Smith, 1919-1930, C
  • Harry Rice, 1923-1933, CF
  • Sam West, 1927-1942, CF
  • Spud Davis, 1928-1945, C
  • Tony Cuccinello 1930-1945, 2B
  • Buddy Lewis, 1935-1949, 3B
  • Wally Moses, 1935-1951, RF
  • Hersh Martin, 1937-1945, CF
  • Billy Johnson, 1943-1953, 3B
  • Mickey Rocco, 1943-1946, 1B
  • Tim McCarver, 1959-1980, C
  • Fred Valentine 1959-1968, RF
  • Jim Lefebvre, 1965-1972, 2B
  • Jay Johnstone, 1966-1985, RF
  • Buddy Bell, 1972-1989, 3B
  • Art Howe, 1974-1985, 3B
  • Denny Walling, 1975-1992, 3B
  • Joel Youngblood, 1976-1989, RF
  • Julio Franco, 1982-2007, SS
  • Hal Morris, 1988-2000, 1B
  • Yonder Alonso, 2010-2015, 1B
  • Daniel Nava, 2010-2015, RF

This skill set represents a dying breed. Only eight of these guys have played in the last 30 years. More to the point, only Morris was primarily a first baseman. Here’s how he and Alonso compare:

Player PA BA ISO BB% OPS+ wRC+
Hal Morris 4443 .304 .129 8.0 111 111
Yonder Alonso 1793 .271 .119 9.0 107 105

Alonso would need to add 30 points to his batting average and 10 points to his ISO, and sustain that for 2,650 more plate appearances, to match Morris. I’m obligated to mention that Morris wasn’t a great player by any stretch of the imagination, sort of a better James Loney.

Even with Morris likely out of reach, if Alonso can adapt to a bench role, he could follow in Walling’s footsteps. The lack of defensive utility works against Alonso, but his bat should keep him around a while. A singles hitter who mixes in the occasional double and walk is a useful asset. Unfortunately for Alonso, such a hitter is not—if history is any indication—a starting big-league first baseman.

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