ATLANTA -- When you consider we’re less than a year removed from some fans questioning whether Ozzie Albies should ditch the art of switch-hitting, it’s even more impressive to recognize what the Braves' second baseman did this year to put himself in a club that includes just two other players -- Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray.
“In this life, industry, the world right now, man, they want everything right now,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “You've got to have patience with players. You forget that they're young players with limited experience in the Major Leagues and they're going to continue to get better as they work.”
One year after earning his first All-Star selection and then fading down the stretch, Albies has gained the consistency necessary to strengthen his future-superstar status. The 22-year-old might not draw the same attention as his best friend, Ronald Acuña Jr., or either of his two other MVP-candidate teammates -- Freddie Freeman and Josh Donaldson.
But as the Braves prepare to play the Cardinals in a winner-take-all Game 5 of the National League Division Series on Wednesday, they recognize that Albies can be a difference-maker with both his bat and glove. The young infielder drilled a go-ahead homer during the Game 4 loss, and the team-high 2.0 fWAR he produced over the last two months of the season ranked ninth among NL players.
“It’s fun when it’s going good and you’re winning,” Albies said. “It’s amazing.”
Albies’ career statistics include a .279 batting average, 54 homers and a .806 OPS. Mantle and Murray are the only other switch-hitters to hit .275 with at least 50 homers and a .800 OPS through the first three years of their career at age 22 or younger. Mantle ranks first among all switch-hitters with 84 homers hit at 22 or younger. Ruben Sierra ranks second with 69. Albies and Murray are tied with 54.
These are numbers you wouldn’t expect to see from a generously listed 5-foot-8 young infielder, especially one who created concern when he hit .161 with just two homers and a meager .492 OPS from the left side during the second half of the 2018 season.
After hitting .261 with 24 homers and a .757 OPS last year overall, he batted .295 with 24 homers and a .852 OPS this year. He recognized improvement on both sides of the plate. His OPS from the right side rose from .905 to 1.099. His OPS from the left side rose from .696 to .778.
“When you see consistency for a month or two months, it’s like, 'OK, it’s there,'” Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer said. “Because he was swinging at strikes, he didn’t really have prolonged stretches where he was cold. There were short stints here and there. But I look at it from what kind of at-bats you’re having. I feel like his at-bats have been really, really consistent the whole year.”
How good was Albies this year? He stands with Mantle (1952, '53, '54) and Pablo Sandoval (2009) as the only switch-hitters 22 or younger to hit .290 with 20 homers and an .850 OPS in a season.
“His hand-eye coordination is pretty unparalleled,” Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “He’s a smart hitter. People don’t know that about him. He can think through at-bats. He puts himself in a position to succeed. I’ve seen the evolution mentally, as well as physically.”
Before producing a .624 OPS in last year’s second half, Albies had impressed by constructing a .834 OPS through the first half of what was his first full big league season. It was apparent the Curacao native had tremendous potential. But as the season’s final months elapsed, it was also apparent he needed to gain more plate discipline and a better feel for how to attack offspeed pitches from the left side of the plate.
It wasn’t like Albies made drastic changes. His first-pitch swing percentage dropped slightly, from 45.3 percent to 44.2 percent, but his chase rate overall actually rose, 32.4 percent to 34.4 percent. Still, he gained a feel for the value of patience as he filled the eighth spot of the lineup on a semi-regular basis over May’s final two weeks.
Albies exited May hitting .265 with a .736 OPS and then hit .312 with a .917 OPS over the remainder of the season. The 1.180 OPS produced against left-handed pitchers within this span was impressive, but not surprising. The .839 OPS produced against right-handers proved he had indeed become a more complete offensive threat.
“He has just been spectacular,” Seitzer said. “He made strides I don’t think any of us envisioned being so drastic compared to the way he finished last year, left-handed especially. Right-handed, he’s always been rock solid.”