2019 Fantasy Profile: Ozzie Albies – Did the League Figure Him Out?
I’ve spent this offseason looking at players who elevated or tanked their fantasy stock with surprising seasons. Today, I’ll touch on a player whose season was more enigmatic than unexpected. Ozzie Albies had a star-level first half before his production cratered after the All-Star Break. Without context, his line looks relatively pedestrian: .261/.305/.452 with 24 home runs and 14 stolen bases. For a 21-year-old, though, it was an exceptionally impressive season, albeit not one unforeseen given our preseason love of Albies at Fantrax. But the question remains: what happened to Albies, and how optimistic should owners and Braves fan be about their Robin to Ronald Acuña’s Batman? One particular skill that Ozzie Albies showed last year has me over-the-moon about his outlook.
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Ozzie Albies 2018 Season
Ozzie Albies’ season was both a tale of two halves and a tale of two sides. Albies’ first-half numbers were tremendous: .281/.316/.516 with twenty home runs and nine steals. In the second half (admittedly a bit skewed because the All-Star Break doesn’t actually divide the season in equal halves, making the first “half” slightly longer), he hit all of four home runs and slugged .342. Over a full season, such an output would be unplayable. Luckily, as we’ll see soon enough, that doesn’t figure to represent anything close to Albies’ true talent.
More eye-catching, if less noticeable to the average fan, are Albies’ left-right splits. A switch-hitter, Albies’ .905 OPS hitting right-handed dwarfed his .696 mark from the left side. Obviously, right-handed pitchers are more prevalent, so Albies’ struggles against them raises eyebrows. Still, we know the flukiness of single-year handedness splits, and while Albies does seem to be a more advanced hitter from the right side, the gap isn’t as large as those splits make it seem to be. Much of it reflects unsustainably skewed ball in play results from both sides, and Albies is significantly better at lifting the ball as a lefty. It’s a red flag, but it’s a small one.
Second Half Struggles
Those season splits aren’t as big a deal as they might seem. The foundation for each hitter is the strike zone. From Fangraphs, we see that Albies improved in this regard. As the season progressed, Albies cut his chase rate while holding his swing rate on pitches in the strike zone. By September, he looked like a disciplined hitter, even though that was his worst month by results alone.
Albies will never have Joey Votto’s strike zone discipline- he’s aggressive, and his game revolves around making a ton of contact- but this isn’t the profile of someone who was completely lost amidst a slump. His batted ball authority fell off slightly, but it’s not as if Albies hit some outlandish cliff. He lost about two miles per hour off his air balls in the second half- meaningful, but not a kiss of death. Maybe he simply wore down a bit after playing a career-high 158 games. It’s even likelier that pitchers adjusted to his stellar first half. Albies showed the ability to adjust back.
Consider how pitchers attacked Ozzie Albies as the season wore on, thanks to Statcast.
From the season’s start through the end of June, pitchers threw Albies 56% fastballs. After Albies summarily rocked them, pitchers changed their approach, feeding him an equal number of heaters and soft stuff from then on, the third-lowest fastball rate of 257 qualified hitters. It’s not hard to see the logic. Getting beat by an aggressive hitter? Throw soft stuff out of the zone and hope he’ll get himself out. For a while, Albies obliged. By September, though, Albies was making more contact, especially on breaking stuff.
No one wants to overemphasize a few weeks against expanded roster competition, but Albies’ quiet uptick in contact at the end of the season bodes well for his future. Not only does it demonstrate poise that belies his youth, something former teammate Brandon McCarthy recently attested to, it also shows some ability to recognize how pitchers are attacking him. Baseball is a game of peaks and valleys for all hitters (non-Mike Trout division), and Albies showed signs of being able to lift himself from a rut, even if the season ran out before his results could reflect it.
The Exciting Part
The separator for Ozzie Albies, though, is the impact in the bat. No one doubts his bat-to-ball skills, and he’s a comfortably plus runner. He’s going to hit for average, steal bases and hit near the top of a productive lineup, so he’ll rack up runs as well. How much power upside is here though? More than most people would expect. He’s no Aaron Judge, of course. Despite being well-built and athletic, there’s only so much punch he can pack in a 5’8”, 165-pound frame. He’s in the bottom half of the league in both average and peak exit velocity. But we remain in an era where guys with this profile hit for unexpected power, even if the ball has seemingly levelled off.
Travis Sawchik covered the phenomenon in a fantastic piece at FiveThirtyEight in August. Sawchik pointed to José Ramírez, Francisco Lindor and Mookie Betts as prime examples of undersized players hitting for power by elevating the ball pull-side. None of those players can hit the ball as hard as Giancarlo Stanton (or even Mark Trumbo), but they have five 30-plus homer seasons between them. It’s no surprise to find each of those players among the top 10 in pulled air balls last season, alongside another player, Alex Bregman, who similarly posts elite in-game power numbers despite unexceptional raw power. In today’s game, it’s possible for small players to post bopper-like numbers through exceptional bat control. Make a ton of contact and elevate to the pull-side, and you can yank quite a few home runs.
It should be apparent where this is headed. From Baseball Savant, the leaders in 2018 pulled air balls.
That’s an impressive assortment of hitters. Maybe there’s a story to be told about Marcus Semien and Andrelton Simmons, too, but Albies sticks out. Ozzie Albies doesn’t have the plate discipline of Ramirez, Betts or Lindor, so he’ll probably never get to that level, but this is the starter kit for unexpected power. Yet to turn 22, Albies may well get stronger. Down the stretch of last season, he showed signs of improving his pitch selection. Most importantly, he’s already shown a foundational ability to launch pull-side, which is how players who look like Albies become elite hitters. Even as his results sputtered, that aspect of his game persisted. From August 1 onward, he remained in the top 25 hitters in pulled air balls. Albies wasn’t hitting balls quite as hard, so they weren’t going out, but his bat control- the backbone of his hitting profile- didn’t waver. Combine the bat control with more consistent power as he matures physically, and there’s a chance he’s a future superstar.
I don’t need to convince owners to love Albies. They already do. I just love him a little bit more. He’s coming off the board fourth among second basemen, 44th overall. It’s defensible to prefer Whit Merrifield, but I’d rather have Albies, especially in long-term leagues. Five category contributors are hard to find. Ozzie Albies has a chance to be one, with a lot of similarities to some of the league’s unexpected stars. He might join the club himself in a year or two.
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