Mets can’t afford repeat of Pete Alonso’s sophomore slump

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If it was just a sophomore slump, then Pete Alonso has company, much of it good, much of it hopeful, and helpful, if help is what he needs. That is, after all, why there is a term for it — call it “sophomore slump,” call it “sophomore jinx,” call it anything you want. It’s real. It happens. It’s happened. And it isn’t just baseball.

How about U2? Forty-one years ago, they released “Boy,” and it was a sensation, music fans latching onto the Irish lads as the Next Great Thing. One veteran critic gushed it was a “subtly ravishing first album, by turns pretty, propulsive, playful and irresistibly catchy.” A year later came “October,” and that was such a fiasco that Bono and The Edge both nearly left the group. They didn’t. They recovered. They’re U2!

How about “Friday Night Lights?” Any fan of this, the greatest sports-themed TV show of all time, will immediately wince at the mere mention of Season 2, when somehow Landry and Tyra got stuck in an extended Lifetime movie within the show and it felt like the series was begging to be canceled. It wasn’t. We got to enjoy Coach and Mrs. Taylor and Riggins and the rest for three more seasons. It recovered. It also holds up a full decade later.

So, yes, Pete Alonso can overcome his sophomore slump, although before we talk more about that we should mention: it actually wasn’t as bad as you remember. The truth is, nothing was ever going to serve as an acceptable bookend to 2019 when, as a rookie, he made the Opening Day roster, won the Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game, cruised to Rookie of the Year honors and slugged 53 home runs with 120 RBIs. He finished seventh in the NL’s MVP vote.

Last year, of course, was a 60-game stump of a season. And it felt, from the jump, like Alonso was flailing. He scuffled with runners in scoring position. He seemed to chase every ham-and-egg breaking pitch from any ham-and-egg pitcher. He was benched a couple of times by Mets manager Luis Rojas after playing 161 games as a rookie.

“I don’t believe in the sophomore slump, or curse, or jinx, or whatever you want to call it,” he said in early August.

“I’m getting close, I can feel it,” he said in late August.

“I’m right there, I know I am,” he said in mid-September.

And look, if you believe in projections, this is what Alonso’s 2020 numbers would’ve looked like over the course of 162 games: 43 homers, 95 RBIs (not up to his epic rookie figures, but better totals than all but a handful of Mets hitters ever), 153 strikeouts (a lot, but actually 30 fewer than he had as a rookie). His slugging percentage (.583/.490) and OPS (.941/.817) did shrink noticeably.

So it was certainly a sophomore tail-off for Alonso but, for our purposes here: sure, let’s call it a sophomore slump. The Mets never did get untracked last year, after all, never once compiling a four-game winning streak — and Alonso, as face of the franchise, has to answer for some of that. By season’s end Alonso had also lost his position, Rojas opting for Dom Smith and his slick glove at first base more games than not, using Alonso as the DH.

Now, that was every bit as much a tribute to Smith’s surprising ascent (.316/.377/.993, with full-season projections of 32 homers and 135 RBIs) as it was to Alonso’s descent, and if there is no DH this year it will surely require exiling Smith to left field most days, restoring Alonso to first. More quality bats in a lineup ought to be a good thing.

But it also underlines an important point about this coming Mets season: besides the jump-start that Francisco Lindor will surely bring to the lineup, a return to something resembling 2019 form for Alonso must also be factored into the team’s offensive upgrade. Remember, though Alonso’s power numbers as a rookie were staggering, it was his plate poise and his willingness to settle for singles when necessary that impressed every bit as much as his titanic blasts did.

“He’s the one guy you look at on this team, you sometimes stare at him in the cage because he’s so talented,” Michael Conforto said of Alonso last September. “I don’t think any of us ever worries about Pete. Pete will be fine.”

If he is fine, then that offense really will be something to behold as it was in the closing few months of 2019, as it looked for fleeting cameos last year. Since then the Mets have added a new owner, a new president, a new catcher and a new shortstop. That’s good. What would be even better? A return of their “old” first baseman, all of 26 years old. That would be even better.

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