At this time last year, Hanser Alberto was still three teams away from the Orioles. By now, the roundabout way he eventually ended up in Baltimore is well-known: designated for assignment four times in the span of five months, Alberto spent November through March bouncing along the waiver wire, from the Rangers to the Yankees to the Orioles to the Giants and then back to the O’s.
It was an unlikely start for a player who, a year later, stands alone as GM Mike Elias’ best acquisition since taking over the Baltimore’s baseball operations.
“I did not expect him to compete for the batting title. It’s been unbelievable. He’s been a real bright spot for us,” Elias said last month. “There was a period of time where he seemed like someone we might be able to strategically push through waivers. We tried it, it didn’t work, and I kicked myself very hard when that happened. As soon as he went back on waivers again, we felt like we lucked out and grabbed him right away.”
What Elias thought he was getting was a versatile depth piece, so he took a flier on a player who spent parts of the past nine seasons in the Minors. What he got was a surprise spark plug who drew rave reviews for his energy, played all over the infield and simply did not stop hitting for long stretches of the season. A year later, it’s not just Alberto’s roster status that is secure. The same can be said for his standing as a Major League player.
“He is a young guy who did about as much as anybody with the opportunity he’s gotten here in Baltimore,” Elias said.
What went right?
Pretty much everything went right when Alberto made contact, which was often. And basically everything against left-handed pitching went well. By hitting .305 with 12 home runs and 51 RBIs in 139 games, Alberto became the first Oriole to eclipse the .300 mark since Nick Markakis in 2008. He hit safely in 94 of his 128 starts and notched a whopping .398 average against southpaws -- good for second in MLB. He collected 88 hits off lefties, the highest single-season total since Tony Gwynn had 90 in 1987.
All were career-highs for Alberto, who was a career .309 hitter at Triple-A but entered 2019 hitting just .192 across 89 MLB games.
“I think I showed my best,” Alberto said. “As soon as I saw they picked me off waivers from the Yankees, I knew I had a lot of opportunity here to show my talent, to show what I have. To prove that I can be at this level and doing what I was doing in the Minors. That was my mentality.”
Alberto did it with one of the more unique batted-ball profiles in baseball, and he earned his way into the lineup as the spring wore on. He broke camp as a reserve but soon found himself in the lineup every day, playing third base against left-handed pitching and second against righties, as Jonathan Villar shifted to shortstop in place of Richie Martin. Alberto became a regular presence at the leadoff spot, particularly down the stretch.
“After the first half, I was talking to my wife and my mom, and I said, ‘Now I’m ready to play every day,’” Alberto said. “I became more relaxed, more focused and less worried about what’s next.”
What went wrong?
The dirty little secret about Alberto was that despite his high average, his low on-base and slugging percentages actually made him a below-average offensive player in 2019 on aggregate. That’s because he largely eschewed walks and extra-base hits, despite putting the ball in play at an elite rate.
His 9.1 percent strikeout rate was the lowest, period, among qualified hitters. But his 2.9 percent walk rate was also tied for second-lowest, and he ranked in the 1st percentile of MLB hitters in exit velocity and hard-hit rate, per Statcast.
Let’s go with Aug. 20, when Alberto socked a three-run, go-ahead eighth-inning homer that sent the Orioles to a 4-1 win over the Royals. His first career go-ahead shot in the eighth or later came as part of a banner August, when Alberto hit .354 to put himself squarely -- suddenly and surprisingly -- in the midst of the AL batting race.
Facing the Royals in Kansas City 10 days later, Alberto went 5-for-6 to raise his average to .324, which ranked third in the AL at the time. He finished the season with a .305 mark, well behind eventual batting champ Tim Anderson, but still the highest by a qualified Oriole since Markakis in ‘08.
At this stage in the Orioles’ rebuild, any performing player qualifies as a trade chip, especially one whose original acquisition cost was so minuscule. Alberto cost the O’s essentially nothing to bring in, so there is almost inherent surplus value, no matter what his trade market is. However, this may be a case where Alberto brings more value to the Orioles than he would fetch them in return.
Teams will certainly see his extreme bat-to-ball skillset, tiny walk rate and super-low exit velocities and wonder if his 2019 production is repeatable. Alberto is due for a first-time raise through arbitration, but the Orioles might view his projected increased price tag ($1.9 million) as a bargain for an everyday, top-of-the-order player. And given the uncertainty surrounding Villar (who Baltimore will shop aggressively) and Martin (who could begin 2020 in the Minors), Alberto provides versatile insurance the Orioles may desperately need. For these reasons, he figures to be a main contributor again in 2020.
“The opportunity was what I needed to prove my talent,” Alberto said. “I was ready for it. I showed them I can do it at this level and be an everyday player. From the beginning to now, it was a long way. It was a lot of work put into it. There was a lot of faith, a lot of hope, and finally we made it through the season. I hope it is the breakout season for my career.”