When details broke of the Ozzie Albies extension on Thursday afternoon, there was a lot of head-scratching going on.
Not that we shouldn’t all be incredibly excited to have Ozzie sticking around until 2025, possibly 2027 if his options are picked up -- on the contrary, we should all be doing backflips and/or cartwheels, maybe both if you’re feeling agile. But locking down a player with this type of ceiling for a minimum of seven years and $35M? Mercy. The question is not, Is this deal a bargain? because it is most certainly is one of epic proportions. The question is more along the lines of, Will this wind up being the most team-friendly deal in the history of sports?
After Ozzie’s BFF Ronald Acuña, Jr. signed his extension earlier this month, fans everywhere began to posit which young Brave would be the next one to be locked up long-term. Albies was the name most commonly being kicked around. The biggest problem with buying out his arbitration years and beyond, however, came from the range of possible outcomes. He was the Braves top prospect once upon a time, and a consensus Top 20 prospect in baseball at one point, but the maddening inconsistencies persisted. Could he turn into one of the game’s best second basemen? Of course he could. Is he already? Maybe so. But could he just as soon turn into an almost-was? You betcha.
Depending on when you watched the Braves over the past 20 months, you might have wildly varying opinions on his actual value. If you watched last April, you might have seen Albies as a Jose Altuve-esque player -- an upper-tier hitter with an uncanny ability to get on base, one whose game could not be defined by his stature, and one whose power far outpaced his frame. If you watched after the All-Star Break, you might have seen someone closer to Rougned Odor -- a player whose homer-happy tendencies skewed his profile in the wrong direction, and whose overall offensive game was suffering because of it. Albies’ 2018 was equal parts Jekyll and Hyde, and it left all of us to wonder which Ozzie was the real one.
The answer is still unclear, but if the early days of the 2019 season are any indication, Albies might finally be defining his value, though you’d never know it by the contract extension he just signed.
At the time of publication, the Braves have played 12 games in 2019 -- just a hair shy of 7.5% of the season -- so it’s obviously too soon to reach any sweeping conclusions about his game. So far, Ozzie has posted a .327/.389/.449 slash line with three doubles, a HR, 121 wRC+, and a .365 wOBA. The sample size is tiny, but it gets a bit bigger with every game that goes by. Once we dig deeper, it isn’t just the surface numbers that have improved, it’s the underlying peripherals. Let’s take a look at what we’re seeing in the early going.
Simply put, the Front Office chose a good time to lock him down, because he’s about to get even better.
As a natural right-handed hitter who didn’t start switch hitting until 2013, his left-handed swing is perpetually under construction. The start of 2019 has been no different. With some mild tweaks already made to his pre-swing setup, his swing now appears more geared towards line drives. These graphs from Baseball Savant paint the picture of steady progress.
The progress on the right side is inspiring, but that level of improvement from the left side -- from 23.2% in 2018 to 33.3% in 2019 -- is downright eye-popping.
As his line drive rates have spiked, his fly ball rates have tumbled from 23.6% (2018) to 21.3% (2019) as a lefty, and from 29% to 20% as a righty. The power that emerged as he reached the upper levels of the Minors (and even more so when he reached the Majors) was a new part of his game, as he had long been a contact hitter who used his speed to cause fits for pitchers and fielders alike. Now that he appears to be returning to this contact / speed profile somewhat, he can use these line drives to get back to being an all-around pest -- at the plate and on the basepaths.
The tweaks have also yielded increased hard hit contact rates. As you can see from the charts below, his hard hit contact rates from the left side have been gradually improving since his debut in 2017.
His overall hard hit rate of 34.1% is not elite by any means, but Ozzie doesn’t have to have Acuña-level exit velocities to be a valuable and meaningful contributor. At this point, it’s all about progress.
Across the board, his underlying peripherals are rising. His wOBA is 42 points higher than 2018, and his xwOBA, up by 67 points. His xBA is up 72 points. His xSLG? Also up, by 64 points. This points to full scale improvement in the quality of contact Ozzie is making. For the xBA, xSLG, and xwOBA, these expectations are projected based on the exit velocities and launch angles of batted balls, so he is setting himself up to succeed based on how he is hitting the ball, regardless of where it winds up. He’s not just hitting it harder, he’s hitting it better.
Another significant shift in Albies’ game has been his approach at the plate. Not necessarily that he is seeing boatloads more pitches than before, because he’s not (his 3.65 pitches per plate appearance is just a hair above his career norms) -- or that he is swinging considerably less (his 56.9% swing rate is actually up from the 56.2% he posted in 2018). Rather, as pitchers have become wise to Albies’ tendency to chase out-of-zone pitches, they are making a more conscious effort to avoid throwing him strikes. Ozzie is seeing fewer pitches in the zone than last year (44.7% vs. 48.3%), and he is actually chasing them more than he did in 2018 -- his chase rate is currently a borderline ridiculous 38.5%. The biggest difference is that now, when he goes outside the zone for his pitch, he is making a lot more contact.
In 2018, when he chased at a 32.4% clip, he made contact 63% of the time -- now, with his chase rate at 38.5%, he is making contact with these pitches 78.6% of the time. This harkens back to his nearly Carew-like ability to put the bat on the ball coming through the minors. Now that he is taking more control of his hitting destiny in this manner, his strikeout rate sits at an impressive 9.3%, a far cry from his 17.0% clip in 2018.
It seems bizarre to classify a player with a 38.5% chase rate as being patient, and though Albies may not have earned that adjective yet, his ability to draw walks is already light years ahead of where it was in 2018. With pitchers trying to bait him into swinging at pitches out of the zone, he has learned what to chase and when, rather than just swinging on principle. Even with the escalating chase rate, being more judicious at the plate has helped his walk rate climb to 9.3%, the same as his strikeout rate, and a stark improvement from 2018’s 5.3%. For context, he has walked five times in the first 12 games of the season - he walked four times last June and July combined.
After his unexpected power surge upon his arrival in Atlanta, Albies has gradually seen fewer and fewer fastballs (down from 59.3% in 2017, to 53.5% in 2018, to 49.7% in 2019), and a steady uptick in breaking balls (slider / curveball) and offspeed pitches (change-up / splitter). The jury was out on him by the end of 2018 -- as a lefty, a well-placed breaking ball or offspeed pitch could exploit Albies’ weakness, hence a paltry .116 BA against breaking balls in August & September, and a .119 BA against offspeed pitches over the same span. When people point to Ozzie’s gradual decline in 2018, this is the most damning evidence.
He has managed to clean this up so far in 2019, going 6-for-21 (.286) with two walks against breaking pitches and 3-for-11 (.273) with two doubles against offspeed offerings. As pitchers continue modifying their sequencing to Ozzie, staying one step ahead of his competition will be imperative. If he can re-introduce his nearly elite bat-to-ball skills from the minor leagues as a prominent part of his game and combine it with the other gains he has made in his 227 career games, the contract extension becomes even more perplexing.
Again, the Small Sample Size caveat exists, but here is a side-by-side comparison of Ozzie’s 2018 and 2019 peripherals from Baseball Savant.
With the exception of Sprint Speed, he has improved markedly across the board. Granted, the 2019 graphic obviously reflects a player who hasn’t gone through a months-long slump to skew his numbers into the “Poor” categories. But these are all huge steps in the right direction. Also, his .349 BABIP is already starting to stabilize from the astronomical figure he was carrying for the first several games, so this isn’t all illusion-driven. What we’re seeing so far in 2019 is the slow and steady evolution of a player who is imperfect but improving. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget he is only 22 years old, and is still a work in progress.
The contract extension would be a bargain even if he never improves from who he was in the second half, and if can even sniff who he was in the first half, it makes it that much more confusing for him. His 2019 is young, but he seems to have made the adjustments to return to his best form. He now has a contract that will keep him comfortable for the rest of his life. From here, we’ll see how long it takes before this deal is considered the steal of the century.