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Can Ozzie Albies level up for the Braves in 2021?

Albies is already a great player, but there might be even more potential for him to improve

League Championship - Los Angeles Dodgers v Atlanta Braves - Game Four Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Ozzie Albies is a player we all know and love. He may have a diminutive figure, but he packs a lot of fun (and muscle) onto his 5’8” frame. Albies is a joy to watch as he is constantly joking around with teammates, losing his helmet on the base paths, compiling defensive gems, and destroying left-handed pitching. What he has been so far in his career is a very good defender, a plus baserunner, a terror at the plate against left-handed pitching, and about average against right-handed pitching. With this formula he is worth somewhere in the range of 3.5-5.0 fWAR over a full season, which makes him a fantastic player. This should probably be considered the baseline for Albies at this point, even if the league tweaking the baseball composition (again) might reduce his power production some. It is worth mentioning that supposedly an independent lab did a study on the new balls and they apparently will travel 1-2 feet shorter on balls hit over 375 feet, according to the memo the league sent to teams. This obviously wouldn’t be a dramatically impactful tweak if that study holds true. As good as he is already, there might be more room for Albies to become even better.

League Championship - Atlanta Braves v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Two Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

Albies is genuinely incredible as a right-handed batter against left-handed pitching. His career slash line as a right-handed batter against left-handed pitchers is .346/.377/.575, which is good for a 148 wRC+. For context, Mookie Betts has a career wRC+ of 136 and Freddie Freeman has a career wRC+ of 139. (Perhaps worth noting that Albies is benefiting from a .020 xwOBA overperformance against lefties so far, while his line against righties has no such gap. Still, he’s in Mookie Betts-against-everyone territory either way against lefties.) Albies is a ridiculously good hitter as a righty against left-handed pitchers. Unfortunately, it cannot be assumed that these numbers would even remotely carry over if he stopped switch-hitting and just hit right-handed full-time, especially given how long it has been since he faced right-handed pitching as a right-handed batter.

The defensive metrics on Albies are mostly in agreement, with one major blip. In general, they paint the picture of an elite defender at second base. One aspect of his game that contributes to this is that he is extremely good at making the plays that he should make and not committing errors. Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and UZR both see Albies as very good defensively. Statcast’s Outs Above Average (OAA) places Ozzie’s 2018 season in the 99th percentile, and his 2020 in the 94th percentile, which is obviously elite to the extreme. Somewhat peculiarly, OAA placed Ozzie’s 2019 in the 13th percentile, which is obviously very bad and a stark contrast from all the other numbers. The other metrics are mixed on his defense in 2019, as he accumulated the most DRS of his career, while UZR saw it has his worst season defensively, but did not see him as a liability like OAA did. Just from watching the games, I didn’t see anything particularly different about his defense in 2019, although it did seem to be a small step back from 2018. Overall, I think Albies can be considered an elite defender at second base, and it can be assumed that the weirdness of the 2019 metrics was just the usual defensive small sample goofiness and not indicative of his future performance. (Also worth noting that component-wise, Albies has consistently rated as strong going to his left, but his 2019 was upended by awful marks going to his right, which seems to be an issue shared with other Atlanta infielders. Given that that component piece was above-average in 2018 and average in 2020, it’s hard to feel confident that this is a real issue that’s going to recur... but the safest thing to do is still to average everything, which makes Albies an above-average to very good defender no matter how you slice it.)

I won’t spend much time on Albies’ baserunning other than to say that he is very fast and extremely fun on the base paths. His speed refuses to be contained by his helmet.

New York Mets v Atlanta Braves Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images

There is one area that he clearly has room to improve on to make him a truly elite player in baseball, and that is his left-handed hitting against right handed pitching. Since most pitchers are right-handed, this is relevant to the majority of his plate appearances. Albies’ career wRC+ as a left-handed hitter against right-handed pitching is 95, which is slightly below average. Given everything else he brings to the table, this is fine. With that being said, there are reasons to believe that he can be much better.

One reason for optimism in this area is that Albies has been improving from the left side since his first full season in 2018. His wRC+ from the left side against right-handed pitching in was 84 in 2018, 97 in 2019, and 125 in 2020 (albeit over only 90 plate appearances). Albies has been vocal for years that he knows he needs to work on his left-sided swing, and he seems to have been able to improve on it, at least somewhat. If he can become even a 115 wRC+ hitter from the left-side of the plate, he could be a legitimate MVP candidate. Albies becoming above average against right-handed pitchers would also dramatically help the Braves’ offense as a whole, since all of the presumptive every-day hitters in the lineup are better against left-handed pitching except for Freddie Freeman. Albies could become a second impact bat from the left side to make this Atlanta Braves lineup that much more scary.

(On the flip side, his xwOBA against right-handed batters is more mixed, showing some better ability in some years and worse in other years, without much of a trend — he outhit it a ton in 2020 but underhit it in 2019:

So, it’s still a work in progress, perhaps.)

On the whole, we can expect Albies to be quite good in 2021, but if he can take another step and become above average from the left side of the plate, he could ascend to truly MVP caliber.

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