Yonder Alonso is off to a ridiculous start in 2015. He’s getting on base almost half of the time he has a plate appearance, and after game one of the home series against the Dodgers his batting average is .379. So where did this come from? No one maintains numbers like that for a whole season, but is Alonso’s hot start an indication that he’s at the beginning of a career year? Or is he simply enjoying a period of good luck that will soon come to an end?
There are a couple of statistics that can be used to get a better idea of why a player is on a hot streak. The first is BABIP, or batting average on balls in play. Factors that play into BABIP include skill of the player, how well the hitter is making contact, and luck. Sometimes bloops fall in when they shouldn’t, and sometimes well struck line drives go right to a defender.
When examining a player’s BABIP, it is important to also examine the line drive rate of that player as well. Line drives result in base hits more often than fly balls or ground balls, so if a player’s high BABIP is being driven by a high line drive rate, the implication is that luck is not playing a large part in the player’s hot streak. Also important when analyzing BABIP and line drive is comparing a player’s stats for the current year to that player’s stats from previous years.
Looking at Yonder Alonso’s stats on baseball-reference.com, he has a career BABIP of .310, and his line drive rate for his career is 23%. Last year the Padres Yonder Alonso’s line drive rate was 26%, but his BABIP was just .251, so his low batting average last year was partially due to bad luck. The opposite is true this season, as his BABIP is an incredible .429, while his line drive rate is actually down to 20%. As a result, it appears Yonder Alonso has not discovered some secret truth of the universe, and instead he’s just getting extremely lucky. However, he’s doing so well this season that I have a hard time believing his success is only due to good luck
Further examination of Alonso’s stats this season show that his walk rate is up to 14.3% from 5.9% a year ago. His career average walk rate is 8.9%, so he actually showed a usually low amount of patience at the plate in 2014. Also, while he’s not hitting as many line drives, he’s hitting more ground balls. Ground balls result in base hits more often than fly balls, and his ground ball to fly ball ratio this season is 1.92, so he’s hitting ground balls almost twice as much as he’s hitting fly balls, and prior to this season his GB/FB ratio was never over one.
Additionally, he has yet to hit an infield fly ball, which is pretty much as effective as a strikeout, and is a BABIP killer. Only 14% of Yonder Alonso’s base hits in 2015 have been extra base hits, which is down from his career average of 29%, and a high mark of 42% from 2014. That drop is not surprising since he’s hitting fewer line drives. All of these factors indicate that his high OBP does have something to do with him playing better, and that luck isn’t the only thing leading to his success.
Putting all of this together, a lot of Alonso’s hits in 2015 have been ground ball singles. Being a part of a lineup that doesn’t require him to be the major source of power has potentially led to a shift in philosophy for Alonso. Instead of trying to get under the ball and send it out of the yard, it appears he’s just trying to get on top of the ball and get on base.
Scouting reports against him will likely shift from profiling him as a pull happy slugger and instead portray him as being a contact hitter whose focus is to lay off bad pitches and simply put good ones in play. Opposing pitchers might start throwing him pitches high in the zone making it more difficult for him to get on top of the ball, particularly at home where a fly balls are less likely to leave the park. The regression period for which he is due might start when opposing pitchers start pitching to his new scouting report.
Based on his BABIP and line drive rate, Yonder Alonso’s hot streak to begin 2015 is anything but sustainable and a cold streak is in his future. However, based on his ground ball to fly ball ratio, and his increased walk rate, there are reasons to expect Alonso will continue enjoying a successful season. To be sure, he’s performing at a level that will not last for long, but if he continues drawing walks at a high rate and maintains his base hit over extra base hit approach, his OBP should settle in somewhere above his career .341 mark.