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4D Chess and Yonder Alonso

Signing the slugger is smart in its own right. But what if the Indians are mind-gaming their own players?

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Cleveland Indians Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Signing Yonder Alonso is a pretty savvy move by the Indians. Best case scenario, he replicates and improves on his 2017 where he made drastic swing changes in an effort to lift the ball, and the Indians have a top flight first baseman to help bolster the offense in the wake of Carlos Santana's departure. Worst case, he's merely a platoon bat to face righties (.900 OPS against right-handed pitching in 2017) and works with Brandon Guyer or whoever to form into a single Voltron of offensive might. Even that isn't too bad for $8 million. It's hard to think the Indians brought him in for anything more than just creating offense. But what if they did? What if there's a kind of psychological game they're playing with their own players?

What I mean is, there's a pair of guys on the roster who could really benefit from taking Alonso's path from replacement level to pseudo-star. Both Michael Brantley and Yandy Diaz have great physical gifts, but are held back by their swing. What if the Indians want to have a success story of the Launch Angle Revolution around for these players on the team to experience, first-hand. These two players are at far different places in their career, but both might benefit from an Alonso jolt.

Michael Brantley has a couple very good offensive seasons in his past, but between shoulder problems and a propensity to hit the ball on the ground more than makes sense, he is less than he could be. Brantley doesn’t hit the ball at Judgian or Stanton-esque levels, but his 88.4 mph exit velocity in 2017 does put him ahead of players like Mookie Betts or Jay Bruce. The issue is the 9.82 degree launch angle. He just doesn’t give himself a chance to truly post power numbers that he flashed once, in 2014. It would be kind of like when Daniel Murphy pointed out to Ryan Zimmerman that he hit the ball harder than most other players in baseball, but in the wrong direction. After hearing that, we see Zimmerman have a dazzling offensive season, blasting 36 homers and posting his best wRC+ (138) since 2010.

I don’t think Brantley could have quite that change, but if Alonso really proselytizes for hitting fly balls to Brantley, we might something like what he did in 2014. Maybe more. Heck, Francisco Lindor hit 32 dingers this past year. Brantley could do that. And again, Jay Bruce hit the ball less hard on average, even if it was just .1 miles per hour. But he did blast 36 home runs because of an 18.1 degree launch angle. Brantley has had lots of time to sit and think. Hopefully he thought about a resurgent 2018 and how to get there.

Then there’s Diaz. With a 91.52 average exit velocity, he hits it harder than Zimmerman. He also hits it literally parallel to the ground, on average. In 2017 he hit a grounder 59 percent of the time, comfortably higher than players like Dee Gordon (57.1) and Ichiro Suzuki(56.9). This must cease. He’s simply too strong. But the thing about Diaz, he’s surely a proud man, and with the numbers he’s posted in the minors he might be a tough nut to crack. How do you convince a guy who hit in the high .300’s that he’s doing something wrong? You let it fester too much and you end up with a Jose Bautista situation, not unlocking his prodigious talent until he’s been shuttled through several different teams that could use him. That’s where Alonso comes in. He can be an example to Diaz of someone who also had the talent, but didn’t do the right thing until it was too late for him to get some kind of three figure deal. Plus, he’s also Cuban. Surely there’s some sort of cultural connection there that Diaz can’t quite find with other players. Cultural touchstones can work to bring people together.

This is the 4D laser chess the Indians are playing with Alonso. They hope to use Alonso’s ability to connect with Diaz on a personal level since they’re the only Cubans on the team. I am making a leap here with this assumption, perhaps to my own foolishness. Assumptions will do that. But that, combined with the more concrete fact that Alonso is a former failed top prospect, that might work to convince Diaz to change his swinging ways and tap into those biceps. With Brantley, it’s all about showing that even if he’s over 30, it’s never too late to change. In fact, it could be a second star turn for the Tribe outfielder.

I might be projecting. Especially with the Diaz stuff and Alonso being able to connect with him just because they’re Cuban. Diaz is from a small town called Sagua la Grande, Alonso is from Havana. It’s like a three hour drive. That is a massive gulf, especially on an island that small. It’d be like someone from New York City being expected to be friends with a guy from Syracuse because they’re from the same state. But the cautionary tale thing, where Alonso represents what could happen to Diaz if he doesn’t get to doing what could make him truly great, that might actually work. After all, a monster like Diaz can’t be out-slugged by a tiny little shortstop or second baseman. But Alonso is a manifestation of what Brantley and Diaz both have to realize. If they actually planned it this way, that’s some damn smart next level psychologizing by the Tribe brain trust.