When Carlos Santana left for greener pastures and Philadelphia — I remain firm those are mutually exclusive things, though — the Cleveland Indians needed to make a move to keep the offense solid. Obvious and blunt force are not their way of doing things because that costs money. They needed to be smart. Replacing the power that Santana brought to the lineup was not going to be easy, but they may have just pulled this off with the Yonder Alonso deal.
This move is perfectly Indians. It’s a combination of a little bit of risk, since Alonso has exactly one good offensive year in his career with a 132 wRC+, 2.4 fWAR 2017 campaign. Who knows if it was a fluke. But it also has a little bit of being on the front lines of baseball thought within it. The thing that made Alonso great this year as opposed to barely average as he’s been in the past was his massively inflated launch angle. His career fly ball rate is 34.4 percent. In 2017, that number bounced to 43.2 percent. His adjusted swing plane elevated his average launch angle from 10.3 degrees in 2016 to 19.4 degrees in 2017. That is what unlocked the power that he’s always had.
This isn’t to say that it will definitely pay dividends, and Alonso will post another 30ish home run season. As the power went up, his contact rates took a dive:
Yonder Alonso contact rates
This makes sense. He changed his swing considerably, and was reportedly swinging harder (“punish the ball” in his own words to Eno Sarris), so that’s bound to lead to more swing-and-miss. But if the power is for real, that’s alright. Plus this was 28 home runs he hit playing his home games in Oakland and Seattle. Big parks, damp air. Cleveland could be a bandbox for him.
The real question is, can he replace Carlos Santana in any way? Probably not, at least not in our hearts. But if you compare Alonso’s breakout to Santana’s best year (2016) in terms of raw offensive output, it’s pretty favorable:
Alonso vs. Santana
Alonso has the potential to keep the power up, demonstrating an Edwin-esque 89.2 mile per hour average exit velocity this year, and his .368 xwOBA (expected wOBA, based on exit velocity and launch angle) was actually better than Santana’s own .362 in 2017 and good for 36th best in all of baseball. Better than that of hitters like Nolan Arenado or Marcell Ozuna. He did fade in the second half — 113 wRC+ compared to 146 in the first half, but a culprit could have been his own swing. See, that vaunted launch angle bounced from 16.7 degrees on average before July 1st to 22.5 degrees afterward. It’s a little troubling — that’s a lot of pop flies, and pitchers plainly figured him out some. But with another winter of work under his belt, another year of comfort with his swing, that shouldn’t be too big a deal.
This is a supremely smart signing. It’s incredibly cheap — $8 million a year is roughly 30 percent of what Alonso was “worth” by WAR in 2017 — and has very little downside. If he’s still great they have him for up to three years. Or he becomes a solid platoon bat to use against righties. Losing Santana hurts. But this is a nice bandage to help heal the wound. We all knew the Indians would do something Indians-y, and they didn’t let us down.
Plus his brother in law is Manny Machado. Hey, why not?