In the most boring month of the baseball year, writers stretch for stories. That’s why if you head over to FanGraphs, you’ll find yourself with a story about Yonder Alonso, the A’s platoon first baseman. Alonso wouldn’t typically warrant a story on a national site, let alone the pages of this one. His tenure on the A’s has been tenuous in recent weeks, the addition of Trevor Plouffe and Ryon Healy’s accompanying move creating a roster squeeze.
But Alonso is now at least a little bit interesting. Like the A’s best story (Ryon Healy) a year ago, Alonso has adjusted his swing path in an attempt to generate more flyballs. It’s an obvious change, as Alonso’s power has remained untapped. You can’t hit a groundball out of the yard, and Alonso hits lots of them. His offensive ceiling is limited by the direction his swing, sending balls into the ground.
The upward adjustment makes sense beyond being obvious. Alonso is a nice defender, but at age 29, he’s on the cusp of being out of the league. A bad 2017 and Alonso could conceivably have a hard time finding a job in 2018 - the market for platoon, defensive minded first baseman isn’t expansive. It’s his age 30 season too, and we’re passed the point where Alonso will just put it together without making a major change.
Then there’s the team aspect. Alonso changing his swing path is a risk, and while he’s not guaranteed to put up decent numbers (see 2016), a team counting on a decent, .750ish OPS, league average hitter might not want to see him risk a major change. Like Alonso, the A’s really have nothing to lose and everything to gain. And with a team that’s not projected to do much of anything at all and with time to really let their prospects bake, the big league team can be a testing ground for just about anything.
For someone who is cautiously optimistic about 2017 but realizes that there are going to be some losses, some ugly games, and some boring nights, this is exciting. For one, if the A’s are to be good it’ll be thanks to risks turning into rewards and players hitting their ceilings. Alonso’s ceiling is now higher even if he might not hit it, and so is the A’s. That’s exciting!
You’ll probably turn on an A’s game this year at 7:40 or so, thinking you’ll catch a solid game. Instead you’ll find the game is more or less over, the A’s having given up 12 runs in the first two inning thanks to some errors and some ill timed dongers. But you’re irrational, so you’ll keep watching! And you’ll look away at times, not super interested in the long reliever missing the zone in at bats that drone on and on, waiting for your favorite player to come to bat. With Yonder Alonso a story, at least for the time being, the lineup is 11% more interesting.
Also exciting is the A’s willingness to try new things, or at least let stuff happen. The past few years, there’s been much wondering whether or not the A’s are still that innovative franchise they once were. Yonder Alonso changing his swing doesn’t mean they’re creative, but it at least means they’re still open minded. Swing coaches are the new rage in baseball, possibly an area for the A’s to gain an edge. We know the A’s like creativity, and we’ve got a test case to watch in 2017.
Candidates for change
Nico already talked some about players who need to make adjustments, let’s talk some more about players who should make adjustments cause they have nothing to lose.
Why he should do it: He doesn’t look good enough to be an obvious big leaguer, but he’s likely to make the roster. The stuff is almost there, but just not quite. He needs movement on his fastball.
What he should do: Pick up a cutter, fix his sinker, a splitter, something. Everything is just so dang flat and lifeless, which is bad when you’re often behind in the count and rely on that lifeless fastball to not walk hitters galore. It’s unlikely to happen at this point, when it’s been an obvious need for some time but that’s kinda the point of this whole article.
Why he should do it: It’s make or break time for the defensive stud, and it all rests on his bat.
What he should do: Swing like it’s the dang home run derby while ahead in the count. Last year, he rarely hit anything foul, particularly while ahead in the count. This is a serious infraction in terms of both cherry-picking and sample size but we’re diving head first: Wendle seems to make a lot of weak contact. Instead of fouling pitches off, he hits into outs. Swinging like he’s in the derby may have a two-fold effect: more power, and longer at bats, and therefore more walks.
It’s not a perfect theory as Wendle was actually pretty good last year while ahead in the count. He’s also in less need of change than a Yonder Alonso in order to be good; Wendle’s bat doesn’t need to substantially change in order for him to succeed. But it’s a make or break year for the second baseman, and he’s already behind the eight-ball with Lowrie manning second.
Bad teams are often boring, and in a sport where it’s hard to manufacture excitement, there’s a chance this year will be a slog. We saw in the past two years, and we might see it again this year. But there’s a chance it’ll be exciting, and Alonso’s adjustments will help. Hopefully there are more to come.