Nobody Hits Harder Than Pete Alonso

In a few months, he's already homered off Bumgarner, tagged Kershaw and drawn comparisons with McGwire. How far will the Mets rookie go? As far as his next moonshot.
photo of Leo SepkowitzLeo Sepkowitz@@LeoSepkowitzContributorJune 11, 2019

In the hours following each game, Pete Alonso rewatches his at-bats, a little in awe. There's something about the vantage of the video, that historic angle, the camera peering in from center field from behind the pitcher's back. The scene is eerily familiar. That could be any old slugger up at the plate, stretching and squinting, navigating the batter's box—only it's Alonso himself on the screen. "It's strange," he says. Alonso is just a rookie, and he's still adjusting to life as a New York Met. "Seeing it on replay is like—I'm almost in disbelief," he says. "It looks like me, but it just feels like I'm out-of-body. I can't believe that's me." The feeling first arrived after Alonso's second big league game, in late March, when he faced the fearsome Stephen Strasburg in D.C. Alonso tallied three hits that day. "Looking back and watching me swing," he says, "was like, Wow, I just ripped the hell out of Strasburg's slider. Whoa."

Everybody's been amazed by Alonso so far. "I've seen some batting practice pop," says Todd Frazier, the Mets veteran third baseman. "And he's probably top five I've ever seen—just balls being crushed, easy." Before games, when most players rip it as good as they can, Alonso has a different drill: He intentionally check-swings on pitches, conscious of when the barrel makes contact with the ball. For the most part, these hits drop like bloopers across the shallow parts of a lazy outfield. Some go farther. "The other day he was doing the check-swing drill on the field and hit like a 400-foot home run," Frazier says. "I'm like, Dude, I haven't hit one of those in five years."

His first home run came in the ninth inning of a road game. His second, third, fourth and fifth came in a three-game stretch soon thereafter. His legend grew quickly. He talked his way into an afternoon lineup and then hit a ball so far it seemed to stun the Mets broadcast booth. He homered off Madison Bumgarner, tagged Clayton Kershaw for a first-inning RBI. Decent fastballs enter Alonso's strike zone and return at much higher speeds. This season, nobody has hit a home run harder than Alonso.

At 6'3", 245 pounds, Alonso is built in the mold of the classic slugger. His stance is unfussy: relatively straight up, his bat bobbing a little on his shoulder. Like many power hitters before him, Alonso carries a little gut just below his jersey number. His 21 home runs rank second in all of baseball, behind only the great Christian Yelich. In an era marked by dead-pull hitters yanking balls into the shift, the majority of Alonso's bombs have gone to center or the opposite field. Nineteen of them came before June 1, tying Mark McGwire's rookie record. Last year, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Juan Soto competed in what was considered a historic Rookie of the Year race; Alonso should match their numbers in about 100 fewer at-bats.

If there's a team out there that needed the 24-year-old Alonso, it's the New York Mets. The last time the Mets ranked in the top 10 in runs scored was 2008. They haven't had a player hit 40 homers since 2006 or drive in 100 since 2010. Alonso might do both—he's on pace for 52 home runs and 114 RBI. Across town, there is Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sanchez and a team with history on its side. Alonso is the Mets' counter. There is something about him that goes beyond sheer numbers, a star quality that reverberates. He is the type of player where around the sixth inning of a close game, you start looking at the lineup, doing the math: How many at-bats does Alonso have left? What sort of damage will he do? He is the type of player you build rallies and eras around.

"Sky's the limit for the kid," Frazier says, and it's easy to see. Alonso's hitting prowess is special. His defense, which was supposedly egregious in the minors last year, has been about league average, and in fact Alonso leads the majors in scoops at first base. He's even thriving off the field, navigating the spectacle of stardom in New York. "It's not like we're playing in some small-town city," Frazier says. "The lights are bigger here—everything's bigger. You've gotta be able to handle adversity. I think so far he's done well."

An early test came during the first week of May, when the Mets traveled to San Diego after being swept in Milwaukee. Alonso had won April's National League Rookie of the Month, and Padres neophyte Chris Paddack took issue. "We'll see Monday who the top dog is," Paddack said and then promptly shut down Alonso and his team. Padres 4, Mets 0 to drop a season-worst three games under .500. It had the makings of a classic New York tabloid firestorm. But Alonso, extending beyond the duty of a normal rookie, recalibrated his team. "There's more to it than just a one-versus-one battle, because this is a team effort," he told reporters. He sounded like a player who'd seen a dozen slates of 162 very slowly come and go. "We got to get them tomorrow. It's a must. We need to win."

The following night, Alonso delivered a go-ahead moonshot in the top of the ninth, putting New York ahead for good. He has a knack for these moments, for answering the call: 12 of his 21 home runs have come in the seventh inning or later; he's hit nine to tie or take the lead. The Mets are 18th in MLB in scoring, but no NL team has scored more runs from the seventh inning on. "When the pressure is on, how you perform defines you," he says. "Talk is nice, but talk doesn't change anything. It's all a matter of doing."

At the moment, Alonso is eating a slugger's portion of lunch at his favorite restaurant in the five boroughs, Pies 'N' Thighs, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A fried chicken sandwich, a side of cheese grits, a side of beans and burnt ends, a slice of banana cream pie, put away with ease a few hours before first pitch. He discovered this restaurant as a minor leaguer with the Brooklyn Cyclones on a hunt for authentic sweet tea. Indeed, the place reminds him of home—Tampa, Florida—and Alonso is a proud Floridian. His hat, for instance, depicts the state's outline. His boots, purchased down south, are unscuffable. They go up past his calves, and he wears them nearly every day, even to the ballpark, even when it's 70-something degrees outside.

Alonso's parents were high school sweethearts in Lancaster, Ohio, but moved to Florida after college. For young Alonso, sunny Tampa was a year-round baseball haven. "I watched baseball if it was on," he says, "but I was too busy playing it." His favorite player was Mets legend Mike Piazza. "I loved the way he swung the lumber," he says. Back then, Alonso did his best Piazza impersonation, playing catcher, too, and hitting balls so hard that his dad would frequently have to return his bats, dented or cracked.

Alonso stayed nearby for college, attending the University of Florida. As a sophomore, a batting cage ball smashed his face and broke his nose, and he was in the lineup the next game, wearing a large softball helmet with a protective mask. As a junior, he broke his left hand—scary for any hitter—and rushed back to bat above .500 ahead of the College World Series.

Alonso has a sort of old-school, rugged sensibility. He is an analytics darling who doesn't care much for advanced stats himself. "Most of the things in hitting, you can't quantify," he says. "It's a feel thing. I'm not trying to hit a 25-degree [launch angle] at 105 [mph], because if I think about that, the ball's already by me and I'm out. That doesn't make sense. It's all about rhythm. Slow and easy." The ball carries off Alonso's bat in a distinct way—line drives race to the wall, should-be doubles keep going until they're over the fence. The sight evokes an old, sentimental baseball phrase: country strong. Alonso deserves some beefy nickname—if only the Big Hurt didn't already belong to the great Frank Thomas. (Right now he goes by Polar Bear, which leaves room for improvement.)

Alonso is a self-proclaimed baseball junkie—his fiancee, Haley Walsh, prefers the word fanatic. "We'll be waiting in a line somewhere, and he'll be in his stance, doing the fake phantom swing," she says. Fittingly, the two met when Alonso was participating in the 2015 Cape Cod League—Walsh grew up in nearby Boston. "He just loves it," she adds. "You can see it in the way he plays and talks about baseball."

Alonso is not just a fan but a sort of baseball purist, a believer in the unwritten rules and traditions of the game. "I don't want to come off as cocky or overstep," he says of his approach in the clubhouse. "I just want to be respectful." Certain players have certain seats on the team bus, and Alonso makes sure to steer clear. Ahead of longer trips, he helps carry the cooler onto the plane, a duty he's happy to oblige. He calls it the honor code.

Still, if Alonso is half the time a timid newbie, he is the Mets' best hitter between the lines, creating a unique dynamic in New York. "He's one of our leaders," manager Mickey Callaway said after a recent game. "For a rookie to kind of take on that leadership role like he's doing, and perform like an All-Star, it's unbelievable. And it's because he does everything the right way at all times."

It's a neat balancing act by Alonso—leading his team while being a respectful rookie and while playing with some welcome flair. It was all on display after that mammoth homer in San Diego. Alonso went for a calm and powerful bat flip—popular with the kids—but some pine tar made his hand stick to the bat as he tossed it, so the lumber spun up high, right over the home plate umpire's head—very disrespectful (and of course accidental). Alonso rounded the bases and then apologized profusely.

At other times, he has celebrated without apology. In his second game, when he ripped the hell out Strasburg's slider (his words), he pulled into second with a little extra oomph, raising his arms in Let's go! glee and maybe even adding a subtle thrust. There was his game-tying homer in Milwaukee, too, which he sent whistling into the Mets bullpen in right-center. During his trot, he excitedly pointed to his boys out there.

"I know I'm 24 and on paper it says I'm a man or an adult," Alonso says, "but when I'm between the lines, I feel like a 10-year-old kid."

It's the right energy for these Mets, worn weary after a couple of dud seasons. "He likes to get loud and rowdy, and I think sometimes we need that," says Zack Wheeler, one of the longest-tenured Mets.

"He's goofy, really goofy—he's a big kid," adds Dominic Smith, Alonso's locker room neighbor (who's wearing a Polar Bear Pete t-shirt). "He's a big teddy bear. Big heart, and he likes to have fun."

During scheduled off days, Alonso and Walsh explore the city and eat well, partly in thanks to Alonso's growing status as a local celebrity. They recently dined at the Polo Bar, for instance, which New York magazine has tabbed the "toughest (and most irritating) door policy" in New York.

Alonso has also enjoyed the more simple, day-to-day pleasures of life in the Big Apple. "If you need anything, it can get done in 10 minutes," he says excitedly.

"It's awesome. Getting dry cleaning delivered to your building?" That'd be a 10-minute drive back in Tampa. "Or, throw everything in a bag and have people come pick it up for you and then have them deliver it back? Just like, wow! Seamless is the best app ever," he continues, unprompted. His signature order is pizza, though he can't quite recall the name of the place. "They're delivery distance; that's all that matters," he says. "I love being in New York."

When Alonso debuted, the Mets were a team stuck in the past. The recent past, but still. Their 2015 World Series run seemed to arrive in an instant; in the aftermath of a five-game loss to Kansas City, it was hard to know how good the Mets really were. Their offense was feeble; during one infamous 24-hour period that July, John Mayberry Jr. had batted cleanup for New York (with a .170 average) and then been released. However, their budding rotation—Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz and Wheeler—seemed ready to dominate the game for years to come.

The Mets entered 2016 with much the same roster and came up short, hosting the NL Wild Card Game, wherein they were shut out by Bumgarner. They tried again with a similar team in 2017 but were stymied in crueler ways: Harvey proved washed up, Yoenis Cespedes missed half the season, Syndergaard missed nearly the whole thing. They made a managerial change in 2018 and ran it back. It was still easy enough to squint and see the same old pennant winner, but they won just 77 games. By that point, there was something unenjoyable and even painful about the roster consistency. Old favorites like Wilmer Flores and Travis d'Arnaud became symbols of a lost era. The notion of a team completing unfinished business—as the Royals, runners up in '14, had done against the Mets in '15, and as Cespedes had promised in '16—became brutally unrealistic. Not all seasons can be recreated. The 2015 Mets proved particularly mystical.

In an effort to move on, the Mets hired Brodie Van Wagenen as general manager this offseason, and he promised change. He moved quickly, acquiring Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz from the Mariners and then Wilson Ramos and Jed Lowrie via free agency. But not that much had changed, really. Cano would replace the injured Cespedes in the lineup; Diaz would be the dominant closer Jeurys Familia had been in his prime. Once again, it was a team dependent on the health of a pitching staff that never stayed healthy and on the production of a lineup that never scored. Lowrie hit the injured list as soon as he arrived in New York, evoking the dread of recent seasons tossed away. For things to change in New York—for the Mets to become a different team and a better one—they needed something they didn't have in 2015 or in the no-fun seasons that ensued.

They could have found their solution in free agency, where Manny Machado and Bryce Harper sat into late February. But the Mets, per tradition, bowed out of any bidding. The other option—their only other option—was Alonso. Last year, he tied for the minor league lead with 36 home runs. When Van Wagenen was hired, he immediately flew to visit Alonso in Arizona, during Fall League play. He told him that he'd be a big leaguer someday, and that the day might come soon. He wanted Alonso to prepare himself, to force Van Wagenen's hand.

Alonso delivered in spring training, batting .352 with four home runs, including one on the first pitch he saw. After seeing Alonso hit his third, Red Sox manager Alex Cora said he was "probably the best hitter in Florida." About a week before the season began, Alonso saw a tweet reporting that he'd made the Mets roster; it was confirmed a few days later.

Some 65 games on, Lowrie still hasn't played, Cano has struggled, Diaz has been imperfect. The Mets' homegrown hitters, meanwhile, have kept the team going—think Smith (23), shortstop Amed Rosario (23), right fielder Michael Conforto (26) and left fielder-second baseman Jeff McNeil (27). At the center of this movement is Alonso, whose big bat has stabilized the lineup each day and figures to do so for years to come.

Ahead of a game in mid-May, Alonso stands at his locker, holding a black and white marble notebook. Somewhere in there is the secret to his success.

After each game, Alonso returns to his locker to spend some time alone with the book, filling the wide-ruled pages. He thinks through his at-bats, jotting notes as he goes. How did the pitches move today? What were the sequences? The scenarios? "Once I write stuff down, it usually sticks up in the memory bank a little better," Alonso says. He's been chronicling each at-bat since his days at Florida. "Some people razz me and call it my diary. It's official. It's a notebook, not a diary."

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Maybe, but Alonso prefers to keep it private. "That's top-secret stuff," says Wheeler, who sits just a few tantalizing feet away. Alonso won't divulge what's on an individual page or read aloud. He cracks the journal open but speeds through it like a flip book, only briefly exposing his handwriting. The book is Alonso's place to process the game; it makes his success real and tangible—it's right there, committed to the pages.

On the other side of Alonso's locker sit J.D. Davis, the third-year third baseman-left fielder, and Smith, the pinch hitter extraordinaire. Both players are having breakthrough seasons of their own, though not on the scale of Alonso's. Naturally, they respect the power of his journal. "He has information," Smith says cryptically. Still, Smith respects the privacy of it, too. "Nobody in here is interested or quickly tempted to go through his notebook because that's his personal thing," he says. "That's what makes him great as a player. We don't want to interrupt or disrupt that."

True, this is no time for Alonso to cool down. He is chasing history, after all—with a decent chance to match Judge's rookie-record 52 homers and a good one to top the Mets' single-season high of 41. Meanwhile, the Mets are swaying at 32-33; the team relies heavily on its rookie. Soon the whole league will, too—there's a call for Alonso to participate in the Home Run Derby (which he has embraced), and there's his enticing presence on the All-Star ballot (first base is deep this year but without a runaway superstar).

That seems like maybe a whirlwind for somebody who was a minor leaguer just a few months ago. Alonso also happens to play in the league's biggest market, for a team scrutinized as closely as any. But he maintains a certain distance from all that, from those who hammer the Mets as dysfunctional and even from those who look at him all starry-eyed. If anything, Alonso is still a little starry-eyed himself.

"I still can't believe I'm a big leaguer. I just feel like a normal dude who's playing baseball," he says. But a few hours later he'll strike again, sending an eighth-inning fastball on a wild ride, soaring not only over the left field wall but over the foul pole, too, for a game-tying home run. But hold on. The ball was launched so high that it's actually hard to say if it was fair or foul. The umpires convene for a while to discuss and consider the ball's flight. They study its improbable trajectory and its distant landing spot. Eventually, the meeting adjourns. The crew chief steps forward. He twirls his right index finger: Yes, it's a home run, a signature Alonso moonshot, the type you need to see more than once to believe.


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