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New York Mets Position Previews: First Base

Joe Maddon

As the 2021 season draws nearer, so to do the final roster decisions for the New York Mets. In anticipation of opening day, each Wednesday a new position will gets its own deep-dive preview. Last week it was the catchers’ turn, but today it’s time to take a look at the first basemen.

The Starter

Despite what some might think, Pete Alonso is still the Mets starting first basemen, now and in the future. While he may have started off slow in 2020, Alonso rallied in the second half, finishing strong and proving his breakout rookie season wasn’t a fluke. Obviously, Alonso isn’t perfect and his game could use improving in some regards. That said, it’s hard to be disappointed with how the 26-year-old has performed thus far.

First off, Alonso’s almost unmatched in pure power. As everyone knows by now, the 2019 Rookie of the Year claimed the rookie homerun record after mashing 53 dingers. Backing up this insane number were some of the best power hitting peripherals in the league, including a .583 slugging percentage and a 147 OPS+. In terms of barrels, aka the perfect batted ball with ideal launch angle and exit velocity, Alonso was elite in 2019. He ranked in the 99th percentile in total barrels (66) and the 97th percentile in barrel percentage (15.8%).

Pete Alonso Position Preview
Alonso breaks the rookie homerun record. (Photo Credit to Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Unfortunately, where things look less than stellar for Alonso are with his plate discipline. Even with these excellent power numbers, he struck out 183 times in 2019. That’s a strikeout roughly every four at bats. As a result, Alonso’s strikeout percentage and whiff percentage both ranked in the bottom quarter of the league. Likewise, his chase percentage on pitches outside the zone was 32%, four points higher than league average.

 

The main culprit here is Alonso’s struggles with laying off breaking pitches outside the zone. When comparing how he does when facing fastballs vs. breaking balls, the difference is night and day. Against fastballs in 2019, he owned a .294 batting average, .699 slugging percentage and 22.7 whiff percentage. Against breaking balls that year, his batting average plummeted to .203, slugging to .418 and whiff rate to 37.4%.

The good news is that Alonso actually saw great improvements in his performance against breaking pitches in 2020. The bad news is that he saw a massive regression to his performance against fastballs. Similarly, while his strikeout rate dropped in 2020, so to did his barrel percentage, along with several other offensive stats. Hopefully these inconsistencies are nothing more than a byproduct of the unique nature of that season. After all, Alonso still hit 16 homeruns that year, putting him on pace for over 40 in a full season.

The real concern with Alonso lies in his defense. In his first two seasons he has contributed -3 and -4 DRS, and -4 and -3 OAA respectively. His 2019 UZR showed some promise of defensive improvement (1.8), but was quickly squashed by a subpar 2020 (-1.7). In 2020, Alonso’s fielding percentage also dropped from a respectable .990 to .982, 10 whole points below league average. While the starting job is his for now, should Alonso go through a prolonged slump at the plate, this, coupled with his poor defense might just give way to him losing his starting job.

More than a Backup

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The main threat to Alonso is arguably the Mets best player from 2020, Dominic Smith. While the first couple years of his career were somewhat mediocre, Smith really started to turn things around in 2019, paving the way for his MVP-caliber 2020. That year, he bested Alonso in nearly every offensive rate stat. This included barrel percentage (13.3%), hard hit percentage (46.7%) and strikeout rate (22.6%). He also had an excellent .316/.377/.616 slash line that produced a 169 OPS+. Smith has excelled at hitting breaking pitches, as well, compiling a .276 batting average against them in 2019, and an unreal .388 average in 2020.

Like Alonso, however, Smith’s defensive woes are also well apparent, though, not quite as bad. Since 2017, Smith has accumulated -5 DRS, -1.8 UZR and -2 OAA in 885 innings at first base. Luckily, he does own a decent .991 fielding percentage and has at least put up a couple of positive defensive seasons in 2018 and 2019. Should he see more time at first, there is a chance for greater improvement.

The problem is, all signs point to the NL DH is being missing in 2021. As a result, rather than split time with Alonso at first, Smith looks to see most of his playing time come in left field. There is still a slim chance for the DH to make a return, but as of now it’s looking like Smith will be stuck in left.

The Struggling Veteran

With Smith preoccupied elsewhere, this may actually pave the way for the newly acquired Jose Martinez to step up. Martinez’s career has so far been defined by his ongoing regression from a promising young star to a 32-year-old veteran trying to stay in the league. Across the board, Martinez has seen almost every one of his stats drop precipitously each year since his rookie season in 2017. His career slash line of .289/.356/.447 is buoyed by an excellent 2017-18 (.306/.369/.478), and hampered by a dismal 2019-20 (.251/.325/.386). His lowest point came when he went hitless through 12 games and 21 at bats after being picked up by the Chicago Cubs last year. He also strikes out at a similar rate to Alonso, and is a non-factor on the base paths with just seven career steals.

Defensively, he’s arguably the all-around worst player on the team. Despite spending half of his career at first, he has yet to have a good defensive showing. In roughly 1000 innings, Martinez owns -3 DRS, -2.8 UZR, -3 OAA, and a .990 fielding percentage. With his numbers in right field being even worse (-19 DRS), as well as Michael Conforto being firmly entrenched in the position, Martinez will likely see most of his playing time come at first or off the bench. If he can come close to replicating his strong 2018 season, however, Martinez might find himself getting more playtime at first.

That’s all for the first basemen. Check back next Wednesday for the breakdown of second base.

Featured Image Courtesy of Sports Illustrated

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