But last season, Alu finished with 20 home runs in Class AA Harrisburg and Class AAA Rochester. He wasn’t expecting the sudden jump in performance, but attributed the spike to an improved approach to the plate.
When the 25-year-old Alu started reading his own scouting report last season, he realized his “blue zone,” or weakness at high-spin fastballs, was in the hitting zone. He had no trouble touching the pitch, but the result was often poor contact and he couldn’t drive the ball.
“Rather than working on that pitch and trying to hit it, I just didn’t swing it,” Alu said recently. “And then when a pitcher throws it three times in a row, tip your cap to him. That’s hard enough. I’ve been working on that. It’s not very complex. …It’s just putting [the reports] into operation and get your reps out and get enough at-bats.
Alu’s height – 5ft 10 – half; Referees usually did not call strikes on pitches in the zone. As the pitchers attempted to hit Alu on points further down the zone, Alu thrived on their mistakes. That adjustment worked, but after he was promoted to Rochester in July, he began to question his approach.
“Things started to change because [Class AAA] Pitchers started pitching to my weaknesses rather than their strengths, I noticed,” Alu said. “It was an adjustment in itself, and it kind of took me away from my approach. It kind of took me back a few steps — I had to step back and kind of see, ‘This is what’s going on; that’s what they do. Stick to your approach.’ And then it turned around again.”
It looks like Alu will be around two weeks before he starts regaining his record discipline. In just 59 games with Rochester, he had 11 home runs, 45 RBI and a .329 batting average.
So this offseason he returned to Hamilton, NJ to work with the same coach who has been with him since high school. Physically, he believes his biggest improvement came ahead of the 2021 season. Alu said his body has “changed dramatically” since the start of the aborted 2020 minor league season, which was scrapped amid the coronavirus pandemic, to this point.
“In a normal off-season, you have maybe five and a half months, six months – you rarely have that much,” said his coach Kyle Elder. “But with that extra time, we were able to make sure there were no hip issues, no core issues. And if the core is healthy, now we can really build up the legs and middle and upper back and start building some useful strength instead of just accumulating it and saying, “I hope you can still move.” ”
What Elder didn’t want was for Alu to gain unnecessary muscle that could affect his flexibility, mobility, and speed. And he felt Alu’s body was in a great place before last season’s eruption, although Elder also admitted he wasn’t expecting 20 home runs. So this off-season, Elder wanted to work on preserving Alu’s body while adding a bit more speed and strengthening his right shoulder for another long season.
Alu left his hometown in late January to go to the Nationals training center in West Palm Beach, Fla., arriving early, picking up some grounders on the turf and heading into warmer weather.
Ahead of spring practice, Alu — a natural third baseman who plays on second base — finds himself in the mix for a spot on Washington’s opening day list, though his path has narrowed. In December, the Nationals agreed to a one-year deal with Jeimer Candelario, who led the Majors in doubles two years ago. They re-signed Ildemaro Vargas to a major league deal to serve as a versatile backup infielder. And with former top prospect Carter Kieboom in the mix following Tommy John’s surgery, it’s likely that Alu, selected in the 24th round of the 2019 draft, will open the year with Rochester.
If he makes the majors, only time will tell if his approach will hold up at the next level and he’s capable of producing the same power. But Alu hopes to pick up where he left off.
“The power just came for me,” he said. “Hopefully I can build on that this season and maybe hit more home runs, maybe more doubles. I keep challenging myself to get better.”