With the 2017 regular season now officially in the rearview mirror, we turn our attention to the 2018 fantasy baseball season. Each week, I will be evaluating one player’s stock for next year. We’ll begin with one of the major’s youngest players, a Braves rookie entering his age-21 season coming off of a fantastic 250 plate appearance debut.
Ozzie Albies, Atlanta Braves
2017 statistics: .286/.354/.456, 6 home runs, 8 stolen bases
Albies was a consensus top prospect entering the season, ranking 11th overall for Baseball America and Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen and 12th according to MLB Pipeline’s Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo, with scouts unanimously lauding his hitting ability and defensive value as a potential shortstop while somewhat questioning his power upside. Listed at 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds and with all of seven professional home runs entering this season, those power questions were justified. However, Albies did his best to quiet them this season, hitting nine home runs at Triple-A Gwinnett with six more following his promotion to the majors. While it is not uncommon for prospects to hit for unprecedented power at the big-league level now, potentially due to a difference in the composition of the baseballs between MLB and MiLB, Albies had set career-highs in both home runs and isolated power at Gwinnett before his promotion, indicating that his power spike this season was not entirely due to the change in the ball.
While the ball undoubtedly played some factor, it is also likely that, having just turned 20 years old, Albies simply grew into additional power — power that scouts, although apprehensive, had always been somewhat optimistic about him developing. He also had an equal distribution of fly balls and ground balls this season after having had a long track record of being ground-ball oriented, so a process change was also somewhat responsible for his unprecedented power. Should Albies settle in as a legitimate 15-20 home run per year threat, he has a chance to be a superstar (both in fantasy and for the Braves), because of his collection of secondary skills.
Albies’ most notable tool has always been his bat, as he has ridden low strikeout rates and batted-ball success to consistent success in the batting average and on-base departments throughout his professional career, a trend that continued in his major-league cameo. Albies’ contact rate of 80.3% this season was three percentage points above the league average, with that plate coverage resulting in a strikeout rate just below the league average. While limiting strikeouts is the most important factor in a player’s hitting for a high batting average, they also exert a certain amount of control over their ball-in-play results, and Albies seems to be the type of hitter poised to consistently run abnormally high BABIPs, both because of his contact quality and pure speed.
Albies was one of only 23 players this season (minimum 200 plate appearances) to run a strikeout rate below 20% with a soft contact rate beneath 15%, offering him a rare combination of bat-to-ball skills and contact authority. (Of those 23 players, 15, including Albies, had batting averages north of .280, as this combination unsurprisingly generally results in quite a few hits.) Albies also happened to be the fastest player in that group, according to Statcast, so he also should also possess the ability to beat out some infield hits. That speed, of course, translates on the basepaths, as well, as he combined to steal 29 bases this season between Gwinnett and Atlanta. Stolen base totals tend to fall in the majors, where nearly every catcher has a plus arm and pitchers have more experience at controlling the running game, so expecting Albies to steal 30 bases per season is probably too optimistic. That said, he has enough pure speed and instincts to be reasonably expected to steal 20-25 bases per year should he reach base enough.
That caveat brings us to one of the few flaws in Albies’ game. His high-contact approach has masked a bit of a free-swinging mentality, as he offered at over 36% of pitches outside of the strike zone this season. His walk rates have also fallen substantially as he has climbed the minor-league ladder and faced pitchers more willing and able to attack the strike zone against him. This, in and of itself, is not a significant problem, so long as Albies continues to make above-average contact and hit for some power. However, if, for whatever reason, his power output or bat control unexpectedly dissipate, pitchers may be able to exploit his below-average plate discipline.
Albies drew a fair number of walks this season, and if he continues to punish pitchers who attack him over the heart of plate by driving the ball into the gaps or over the fences, then pitchers will naturally work around him and put him aboard more often. Albies’ plate discipline metrics are not at unbearably low levels to be expected to be his downfall, but this is something that he will need to keep in check to maximize his offensive upside. Another of Albies’ fantasy drawbacks, although through no real fault of the player himself, is the underwhelming Braves offense that surrounds him and may limit his RBI opportunities. If he performs well and hits in front of Freddie Freeman, he should score plenty of runs (although hitting directly in front of Freeman may adversely affect his stolen base totals somewhat), but he will likely not emerge as a substantial RBI contributor as a contact-oriented player without strong hitters in front of him. Still, merely average production in the RBI and home run categories would more than suffice for Albies’ projected combination of batting average and stolen bases, even if the Braves’ decision to play Albies exclusively at second base this season will diminish his positional value next year.
Altogether, there are numerous reasons for optimism about Ozzie Albies’ future, both immediate and long-term. At only 20 years old, it would not be outlandish for him to develop further power, and he already demonstrated a rare synthesis of contact skills and authoritative contact. Throw in his significantly above-average speed, the fact that he plays a valuable defensive position (and second basemen, on the whole, took a bit of a step backwards offensively this season) and one of the more hitter-friendly home parks in the National League, and it’s not hard to see Albies as a top 5-10 player at the position as soon as next year and a definite must-keep in any dynasty formats.