The Transformation of Ozzie Albies

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I spent some time as a writer over at another Braves website back when I was in college, from 2013 to 2015. Back then, I focused my writing on prospects and upcoming talent (not that there was much of that in the system back in those days) and found myself smitten with few players. When I went to farm games then, I found myself mostly observing talent on opposing clubs’ rosters and becoming hopeless with what the Braves had in the pipe. I mean, good lord, this was our mid-season top 5 in 2014:

  1. Lucas Sims
  2. José Peraza
  3. Christian Bethancourt
  4. Wes Parsons
  5. Mauricio Cabrera

Needless to say, as the Braves fired Frank Wren and began their rebuild following the 2014 season, the system was infused with loads of new, shinier talent which has become the foundation of Atlanta’s current youth influx and early-season success. Little did we know, though, after three different GMs came and went and the Braves’ organization completely transformed, one of Atlanta’s crown jewels had been in the system that whole time.

Ozzie Albies (who was known as Ozhaino at the time) came to the system as a J2 signing back in 2013. After being discovered as a diminutive pure hitter with premium speed and defensive chops in his native Curaçao, he was given $350,000 to join the Braves’ system. He came to the states the following summer, making his way to the Appalachian League and Danville, Virginia, which must’ve felt like a long way from home, by the end of the season. Without knowing much about him, I saw Albies and his Danville teammates on a couple of hot July days and came away with this impression:

At the plate, Albies is a switch-hitter, but all of the at-bats I saw from him were as a lefty. His setup and swing are somewhat reminiscent of Jose Peraza’s, as he has similar hand placement and a short, quick stroke. His bat speed was impressive, and helped him to shoot line drives and hard grounders around the field. He projects for virtually no power, so he’ll have to make a living as a line drive hitter who uses all fields. He’s fairly aggressive at the plate, as is par for the course for a player with his approach and offensive profile.

And here we are today, with Ozzie Albies having produced a .227 ISO and 16 home runs in 91 career games. What’s more is that he’s taken his power production to a new level in the (still young) 2018 season, having hit 10 home runs in just over a month to begin the year, placing him in the top 10 in the league. He hit 22 extra-base hits by the end of April, which left him only one short of tying Jermaine Dye’s MLB record, with a combination of tape-measure home runs and legged-out doubles that are singles for about 90% of Major Leaguers. Ozzie Albies is now a multi-faceted offensive threat. Who could’ve ever seen this coming?

While I’ve always liked Albies a lot and have always thought that he had a future at baseball’s highest level, his transformation from an offensively-limited, contact-oriented ground ball and line drive hitter into a legitimate power threat is something that, quite frankly, was largely unforeseeable. While there were flashes of power from the right side of the plate in his younger days, there’s a reason that he was almost universally graded out with 30 or 40 power during his time in the Minors. His extra-base hits were largely going to be products of liners in the gap and those legged-out doubles, not balls hit over the fence.

To this point, Ozzie equaled his Minor League home run total from 2014 to 2016 (7, in 293 games) in the first 17 games of the 2018 Major League season. In fact, he has now hit the exact same number of home runs in his Major League career (16 in 91 games) as he did in his Minor League career (16 in 390 games).

So, how did we get here?

Albies had actually always shown potential to hit for some pop, even during his Minor League days, but mostly from the right side of the plate. Albies is naturally a right-handed hitter at the plate, and his swing back in the early days of his career looked deeper and more natural from that side. From the left side, however, his slap-hitting approach produced almost zero power. Although the improvements he’s made as a left-handed hitter are substantial, it’s worth noting the contrast in his overall production and power production from the two sides of the plate in about 90 career MLB games.

Courtesy: Fangraphs

He hits for more power, strikes out less, and is a better overall hitter as a righty, which isn’t surprising considering that it’s his natural side. But he’s also running nearly a .200 ISO as a left-handed hitter. How did this happen?

Well, as we’ve seen as a broad trend in baseball during the past couple of years, Albies decided to stop hitting the ball on the ground and start elevating. The transformation, quite frankly, in his approach at the plate to batted balls, is astounding. Every year since 2015, he’s hit more balls in the air than in the previous one. Don’t believe me? Check this out:

Courtesy: Fangraphs

At some point, Albies and the Braves’ minor league instructors decided that it would be beneficial for him, despite his diminutive stature that does not exactly inspire connotations of “power hitter” and “home runs”, to stop hitting so many balls on the ground. It’s easy to see why. Despite being 5’6″ (on a good day), Albies is blessed with a wiry, strong frame and the ability to transform those batted balls in the air into hits and home runs. While we didn’t see as many of his fly balls turn into home runs during his minor league days, this was probably a function of the improvements in strength that he’s made as he has matured physically. (Okay, and maybe also because the balls have been juiced, but that’s another story.)

But behind the fly ball revolution is a swing mechanics revolution as well, and Albies is no exception to that trend. Albies’ swing has drastically changed from when I saw him back in July of 2014 to now. What used to be a linear, short, simplistic swing (especially from the left side of the plate) has now changed into a dynamic swing propelled by an exaggerated leg kick that both anchors Albies’ timing and his ability to drive the ball in the air.

Albies’ leg kick from the left side

Here, we see how Albies utilizes the leg kick while batting against right-handed pitching. If you think that’s dramatic, check out what he does against left-handers.

Albies’ leg kick from the right side

We’ve seen countless pros transform their swings, and effectively, their careers, by adding an exaggerated leg kick in recent years. Players such as Justin Turner, JD Martínez, Josh Donaldson, and the Braves’ own Tyler Flowers have dramatically improved at the plate after abandoning their previous mechanics and embracing the fly ball and power revolutions by implementing this mechanical change. Ozzie Albies’ case is distinct from these, as he began his transformation in the Minor Leagues, but it is another example of how players and teams have embraced the reality of baseball in today’s age—fly balls, and power, rule the day.

While Albies had always exhibited talent at the plate as a right-handed hitter, his tendency to produce weak contact as a left-handed hitter lead the Braves to experiment with new mechanics for him to try to coax out more potent contact. This, from an article last year, is illustrative:

Courtesy of milb.com

I’m not a swing mechanics expert, but even as a layman, this makes sense. The leg kick allows Albies to stay balanced throughout his swing and allows his hands to stay back until later, allowing the torque produced by his lower body to guide his hands to the ball and produce more quality, hard-hit contact.

However, the addition of the leg kick hasn’t been the full story. Albies has demonstrated an exaggerated leg kick, actually, since the 2016 season. However, the refinement of his hand position and the nuances of the timing of his leg kick has allowed him to tap into the latent power that didn’t always show itself even after the addition of the exaggerated leg kick, somewhere between the 2015 and 2016 seasons.

What does this all mean? Well, Albies is able to produce excellent power despite a controlled strikeout rate. His propensity for swinging early in the count has driven his walk rate down (it’s hovering below 5% so far this season, easily the lowest of his career), but has also allowed him to do things like this while ambushing fastballs early in the count.

Albies is an exciting, multi-talented, and enigmatic player, who, at only 21 years old, Braves fans will be able to watch develop and produce excitement for a long, long time. His embrace of the power revolution and his transformation from a slap hitter into a home run threat has been one of the most unexpected and pleasant developments that we’ve witnessed from a Braves prospect in many years.

It’s impossible to know what he may do in the future, but this change has blown the top off of his ceiling as a big leaguer, transforming him from a speedy defensive wizard that was, unfortunately, a light-hitting, bat control guy at the plate into a legitimate five-tool talent. The sky is the limit for Ozzie, and his presence in the Braves’ lineup for years to come is something that all Braves fans should appreciate and savor.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Love watching Ozzie play. He provides at least one exciting play every game he plays.

    The only change I’d like to see from him (and several of his teammates) is selective aggression. At times, it seems they make up their minds in the on-deck circle to swing at the first pitch regardless of pitch type, location, or situation. Ozzie’s 9th-inning foulout vs. the Giants on Sunday is a perfect example. The pitcher had been wild the entire inning and Ozzie swung at a ball in his eyes on the first pitch.

    That said, he’s been absolutely amazing thus far this season so I’m being nitpicky. Can’t wait to see how he grows with Acuna, Newcomb, Soroka, et al.

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