Atlanta Braves: why Ozzie Albies isn’t hitting

Atlanta Braves 2nd baseman Ozzie Albies loses his bat against the Chicago Cubs. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Atlanta Braves 2nd baseman Ozzie Albies loses his bat against the Chicago Cubs. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports /

It’s taken the league a few years to figure out how to combat the Atlanta Braves’ second baseman, but the trends are becoming clear.

Throughout his minor league journey en route to the Atlanta Braves, Ozzie Albies was a hitting machine.  From 2014 and into 2017 — the year of his MLB debut — Albies posted hitting averages like .381, .356. 310, .321… and even a .285 batting rate at AAA just prior to being promoted.

Sure:  those are the minors, but once getting the “big” callup, he hardly skipped a beat, batting .286 for a third of a season in 2017, a dip to .261 in 2018, and then a robust .295 in 2019.

But the trends since then have been lower.  We tend to ignore the oddball 2020 season (.271), but 2021 saw Albies hit just .259 for the year, and 2022 has started even lower (.228).

Yes:  you can argue “small sample sizes” and “lack of a full Spring”, and anything like that if you wish at this early point in the 2022 season, but there may be a bigger-picture reason at work here.

The league has figured out how to get Ozzie out.

Fangraphs has a tab on their hitters’ pages called “Pitch Value”.  It’s a measure that attempts to gauge how well players perform against specific pitch types… fastballs, curves, sliders, etc.

Two days ago, Albies was sitting #1 in all of baseball on that chart for hitting fastballs.  The next names on that list were Nick Castellanos, Mike Trout, and Seiya Suzuki.  As of this morning, he’s still 5th overall.

Now that’s a chart of weights and expectations, but it still reports what others have seen:  Albies typically ambushes fastballs well… and yes:  that’s why he’s leading the team in homers.

As for other pitch types… it almost doesn’t matter:  he gets negative scores from fangraphs on everything else excepting the knuckle curve (1.4) and slider (0.4)… and of course, the knuckle curve is on its own island in terms of “small sample sizes”.  But changeups, curves, cutters, and splits?  The results aren’t good.

If you’re a pitcher and about to face Albies, what would your normal reaction be?  Yeah — don’t throw as many fastballs to him.

Despite the homers, that’s exactly what’s happening.

In 2017, the league threw him fastballs 56.5% of the time.  In 2018, that volume dropped 7% to 49.5%.  At this point, the frequency is all the way down to 41.2%.

In contrast, Albies is seeing more sliders (up from 8 to 11% early on) to a whopping 21% this year.

Cutters?  Doubled from 4-5% in his early years to 8.4% this season.  Curves and changeups are down, but splitters are tripled (so far) over last season.

Now pitch types are often in dispute — depending on who you ask — and fangraphs does provide additional data from another source.  That source suggests that the 4-seam fastballs are holding steady (though only at 37% overall) while cutters are up (7.5%), splitters are rampant (quadrupling to 7.5%), and slider rates are way up (to 22.8%).

Again, curves, sinkers, and changeups are down.  Still… the number of fastballs he’s seeing isn’t high.

More Telling Numbers

Fred Owens put together a chart from statcast for me about Albies’ tendencies against off-speed pitches, and since 2018, his whiff percentage has been rising… 16% then and up to 26.2% so far this season.

The whiffs are also high against breaking pitches (28% this year), but he’s always had trouble there.  Against fastballs, though?  Only around 20%.  Ergo… throw him more junk.

What is this data telling us?  The league is adjusting to Albies and he’s going to have to respond as a result.    How, then, should he proceed?

  • Ozzie is still seeing some fastballs, so he could target only those, but the margin for error is smaller since he can expect only 1 or 2 during each plate appearance… and you can bet that these fastballs are not coming down the middle of the plate ( proves this… the majority are up and above the strike zone).
  • He can wait.  That’s happening, as measured by an early increase in his walk rate (6.9% to 8.6%).  That runs counter to his tendencies as a very aggressive hitter, but perhaps he’s trying.

This doesn’t appear to be a chronic problem overall.  Albies’ strikeout rate is up, but only marginally so at this point, and the whiffs don’t appear to be isolated to a particular pitch type.  Indeed, his contact rates are actually up, particularly when swinging at strikes, but he’s getting a lot fewer of those pitches (those in the strike zone are down from 40.5% to 33.1% over just last season).

Overall… it appears that Albies needs to be more patient.  It looks like pitchers are trying to exploit his aggressiveness, and the way to beat that is to make them throw strikes.

Doing so would at least improve his OBP… which would be very helpful to those following him in the lineup.

Next. Injuries and reunions. dark

Then again, with Ronald Acuna back in the lineup (on most days, going forward), Albies need to concentrate on OBP may lessen.  But it would still help his team if he were to force pitchers to throw more hittable strikes.  (Fred Owens contributed to this report)