John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Pete Alonso's cruise missile in Atlanta Thursday night was the talk of the baseball world for a couple of days, from Bobby Valentine comparing it to the "most incredible" home run he ever saw Mike Piazza hit, to a scout saying "I think it might have landed in Augusta" if the ball hadn't splashed into the scenic water-backdrop high above the center field wall.
For Mets scouting director Tommy Tanous, however, it was nothing new, even if it did result in a barrage of some 30 text messages on his phone while he was scouting a high school game in Florida.
"My phone blew up from my area scouts," Tanous said Friday. "We get excited when one of our guys does something like that. I saw it later on the highlights, and it was quite a shot, but I've seen it before. I saw him hit them like that in college. He's a scary dude."
Tanous and the Mets were willing to take a chance on Alonso's potential before anyone else in baseball, taking him in the second round of the 2016 draft out of the University of Florida, and they're being rewarded for it in a spectacular manner perhaps even they couldn't have hoped for.
As of Sunday, after all, Alonso was merely hitting .360 with six home runs and 17 RBI His .860 slugging percentage and 1.299 OPS ranked third in the National League and fourth in the majors.
And while it's early, with everyone I spoke to for this story making the point that pitchers are going to make adjustments in the way they attack Alonso, it's not too early to wonder why no one was willing to take a first-round gamble on the Mets' rookie sensation.
Or to put it another way: how did the Mets get Alonso with the 64th pick of that 2016 draft, anyway? Tanous said it came down to two factors:
1) Righthanded-hitting first basemen almost never get picked in the first round because, as a commodity, they don't have nearly the value of pitchers and players at more premium positions.
2) Many teams saw Alonso as a one-dimensional slugger rather than an all-around hitter who just happens to be strong as an ox.
"We were in on him early, going back to high school (in Tampa, Fla.), and we liked him more than other teams," Tanous said, citing the work of area scouts Les Parker and John Updike for getting to know Alonso on a personal level. "He could give you the illusion that he was just a power-hitter who was going to strike out a lot, but if you looked at him that way, you were mistaken.
"He's really a good hitter who happens to have a ton of power. He struck out in 12 percent of his at-bats in college, a really low rate, and while he's going to strike out in the big leagues, I think what's been most impressive is his ability to lay off pitches out of the strike zone as he's moved up to the highest level."
Valentine, the ex-Mets manager who sees a lot of Piazza in Alonso's swing, agreed that the rookie's plate discipline has been the biggest surprise so far.
"I saw him live in spring training for a few at-bats," Valentine recalled, "and I remember thinking, 'he's impressive but let's see what happens when they start throwing breaking balls away to him.' Then I saw him lay off some tough breaking balls from (Max) Scherzer on Opening Day and I went, 'oh, my, this kid might really be something.'
"I'm a big fan, but the season is the test. He's got extraordinary ability but you have to see if he can adjust once pitchers adjust to him. And you've gotta see how he handles going 0-for-11 with four strikeouts, leaving the winning run on base. Does that make something click one way or the other?"
Two scouts I spoke to expect pitchers to start trying to pound Alonso inside with fastballs, as it has become clear he's most dangerous when he can extend his arms and drive the ball to center and right-center, especially on fastballs down in the strike zone.
Both admitted they were surprised by what Alonso has done, not so much by the power as his .378 batting average. One was more skeptical than the other about him sustaining such success at the plate.
"He does have some holes in that swing and pitchers are going to find them," one scout said. "They're going to have to try and tie him up, keep those arms from extending. You want to see if he'll chase up, and we talk about climbing the ladder a lot, but because he likes the ball down, I expect pitchers to see if he'll chase down too.
"I saw him at Binghamton last year when he went through a tough stretch, when he was chasing a lot. Right now he's locked in, but can he sustain it when he's being pitched differently? I still need to see more."
Whatever the future holds, Alonso is making eyes pop everywhere at the moment with his ability to hit the ball to all fields with stunning power. His home run Thursday night, with its 118-mph exit velocity, put him in the Statcast territory with only the likes of Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Mike Trout.
Meanwhile, Piazza pre-dated the exit velo readings, of course, but Valentine was instantly reminded of his former slugger when he watched Alonso's rifle-shot of a home run Thursday night.
"It reminded me of the most incredible home run I saw Mike hit, way up in the second deck of the Astrodome one night," Valentine said by phone. "There's a similarity there. Mike and Pete both get that front leg really locked in, in a firm and efficient way that creates huge power.
"The ball comes off their bat in a very similar fashion."
Will it last for Alonso? Even Tanous is somewhat cautious.
"He's going to hit a rough patch," the scouting director said. "The league is going to make an adjustment. When a guy starts like he has, pitchers are going to find something, and it's going to be what he does after that. It's the second adjustment that tells you more what he's going to look like over the long haul.
"But with his ability to use the whole field, and the discipline he's shown, to go with his power, you know he's going to hit in the big leagues. It's just a matter of how much."
In other words: solid everyday player, star, or superstar?
Whatever it turns out to be, Tanous can't help but think back to draft night in 2016, sweating out the chance to take Alonso. The Mets had taken pitcher Justin Dunn, who was included this winter in the trade for Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz, in the first round, and Tanous remembers the long wait for their second-round pick at No. 64.
"Just about everybody else that high on our board was being taken by other teams," Tanous recalled.
"We were sitting there hoping Alonso would be there. We really wanted him, and the way it worked out, he was the last offensive player we had rated that high who was available when we picked. We looked at each other in the room and it was like: bingo."
For a franchise that has boasted precious few home-grown sluggers, maybe Alonso will be remembered as one of the great steals in the draft -- at a time the Mets desperately needed one.
It was only a couple of years ago, in fact, that Fred Wilpon, according to a source, was pointedly asking others in the organization, "Where's our Cody Bellinger?"
Meaning, why hadn't the Mets found that diamond-in-the-rough difference-maker in the draft?
Perhaps now they have.