Yonder Alonso and False Narratives

Human beings like things to make sense. We like some semblance of order in our world. The notion of cause and effect helps us deal with a reality that might not always be so binary.

We propose hypotheses to explain events and sometimes come to believe those hypotheses without rigorous testing. For example, we once believed that the sun revolved around the earth and that our own planet was flat. Given what we knew, and ignoring what we didn’t, such beliefs made a certain amount of sense.

But making sense of something and knowing it to be true are not the same thing. We see this not only in explanations of how celestial bodies move but also in discussions of other stars, say a professional athlete. Confronted with confusing evidence, we concoct stories to explain the unexplainable.

Consider the case of Oakland A’s first baseman Yonder Alonso. Taken by the Cincinnati Reds with the 7th pick overall in the 2008 draft, he was seen as a hitting machine whose subpar defense would be tolerated thanks to his potent bat. And while he showed sporadic offensive potential in the minors, that hasn’t translated to big-league success in more than 2,000 plate appearances. He is a marginal performer whose numbers don’t justify his continued presence in anyone’s starting lineup.

However, Alonso is a former first-round pick (taken two slots after the great Buster Posey) whom the San Diego Padres later acquired from Cincinnati in a fairly high-profile trade. Thus he had value to the Reds when they drafted him so highly and to the Padres when they traded for him (and moved the far superior, as it turns out, Anthony Rizzo to clear a spot in the lineup for him).

Teams believed Alonso was good at baseball. But how much of this belief resulted from his perceived value in terms of draft position and acquisition cost, and how much from what he had actually accomplished on the field?

That’s a debatable question, but here we are eight years after he was drafted, and Alonso still can’t hit. His offensive game is best described as a mix of grounders to second and fly balls that land just short of the warning track. Basically he hits like a shortstop.

Now we are faced with a disconnect. Alonso once was perceived to have value but hasn’t subsequently provided any. So at this point, we can go one of two ways. Either we can admit that the emperor is wearing no clothes or we can fabricate an entirely new story explaining how Alonso provides value.

If Alonso was highly regarded but can’t hit, then surely he must play great defense. In fact, that’s what his current teammates now claim. And while it’s admirable that they come to his, uh, defense, it also flies in the face of available metrics (FanGraphs rates him among the worst at his position, while Baseball Prospectus and Baseball-Reference rank him slightly above average) and the sniff test.

Yes, Alonso has quick reflexes and a strong arm, but his hands are made of stone. And although his footwork at first base has improved from awkward to passable, such improvement is not the standard by which greatness should be measured.

So while it’s fun to imagine there’s a legitimate reason for Alonso’s staying power despite his lack of offensive power, it’s more honest to say that he stays in the lineup because he was already there. Creating a myth extolling his defensive prowess makes no more sense today than insisting that the earth is flat. People are free to believe what they wish, but that doesn’t make them right. Just as Christopher Columbus disproved that the earth is flat when he discovered America…

Oh wait, people already knew the earth was round when Columbus set sail? And Leif Eriksson discovered America centuries before Columbus was born? And America was populated by indigenous people who had discovered the continent long before Eriksson arrived?

False narratives can be found everywhere. Who knows, maybe when the 30th century rolls around, history will know Eriksson as a slick-fielding first baseman.


Geoff Young is an editor at Crooked Scoreboard that has zero tolerance for false narratives. You should follow him on Twitter.