OAKLAND — The most unexpected breakout star of 2017 is standing in front of his locker in the Coliseum clubhouse, his hands clasped behind his back, looking like the most polite man in baseball.
Yonder Alonso, now 30 and in his eighth major league season, speaks softly — instead letting his suddenly loud bat and unflagging work ethic do the talking.
“He’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever been around — quietly,” his manager Bob Melvin said. “Whether it’s his defense, whether it’s his cage work, whether it’s his BP, he’s got a consistent routine that he works on.”
Tied for second in the American League entering Friday with 11 home runs, the slick fielding and previously light-hitting first baseman needed all of 31 games to shatter his old career high in that department.
“What are we in? Early May? It’s been impressive,” Melvin said. “At this point you almost expect him to go up there and drive in runs and drive the ball.”
In spring training, Eno Sarris of FanGraphs was the first outside observer to notice the new Alonso at the plate. The left-handed hitter was raising his front foot far higher than he had in the past, making a concerted effort to increase his launch angle.
“I’m trying to punish it more, get it in the air,” Alonso told Sarris.
The high step has worked. Through the first six weeks of the season, Alonso’s fly-ball rate stands at 52 percent, per FanGraphs, up nearly 19 percent from a season ago.
When Alonso totaled seven home runs in 156 games last year for the Oakland Athletics, Melvin insisted the 6-foot-1, 230-pound veteran boasted untapped potential.
“It’s just all the tools are there for it,” Melvin said, explaining that Alonso has turned his batting-practice power into game-time pop. “It’s just putting it all together and he made some adjustments this year that he’s sticking with. He did it in spring training. He’d take an 0-for-4 whatever and stick with it.”
Before arriving at camp in Mesa, Arizona, Alonso spent the winter in Miami, his adopted hometown, training with Manny Machado (his brother-in-law) and Jon Jay — a trio known as the “305 Boys,” according to a profile in the Players’ Tribune.
It was during Alonso’s childhood in Miami that his relentless drive blossomed. His family fled Cuba in 1997 — just before Alonso’s 10th birthday. In another piece published in the Players’ Tribune, Alonso detailed his parents uprooting the family because they wanted a better future for Yonder and his younger sister Yainee.
Back in Havana, his father, Luis, had been a catcher for the Industriales — the New York Yankees of Cuba’s Serie Nacional. More importantly, the indefatigable patriarch — who quit baseball to support his family — was a “hustler” as Alonso endearingly put it.
When the family arrived in Miami, Luis worked four jobs to pay the rent. Alonso acquired his unmatched work ethic — the one that has always stood out to Melvin — from his dad.
“[He helped me] tremendously,” Alonso explained. “I mean, he’s a guy that obviously is my mentor. He’s a guy that’s always overlooking me. We talk every day — two or three times every day. Definitely he’s the reason I am who I am. So, all my credit, obviously, is from him and my family.”
Alonso’s belated breakout — he was the No. 7 overall pick back in 2008 — is ideally timed. Set to reach free agency for the first time at season’s end, Alonso is poised to make a fortune if he can maintain his early-season power surge throughout the summer.
More immediately, Alonso, who leads all AL first basemen in home runs, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, has positioned himself to represent the A’s at the All-Star game at Marlins Park in Miami.
Unsurprisingly, the possibility of such an All-Star debut is a topic that the unassuming Alonso isn’t willing to broach.
“I don’t think about that stuff,” Alonso said. “That stuff is way down the line for me. I’m worrying about today.”