Three Cuts: Adjustment time for Ozzie Albies as pitchers aim to exploit Braves standout's aggressiveness
The Atlanta Braves journeyed through the Sunshine State doing what good teams are supposed to do: Dismantling teams at the bottom of the standings. The Braves wrapped up their six-game swing through Florida with a 5-1 record against the Marlins and Rays, outscoring their opponents 32-18.
Atlanta now owns a .500 or better record against eight of the nine teams it has faced in 2018 and, despite the impressive start, Brian Snitker’s group slightly trails its expected win-loss mark per run differential. Here are three observations from another successful week:
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1. Pitchers are countering Ozzie Albies’ aggressiveness by pitching him like another switch-hitting star
Ozzie Albies checks all the boxes on the “Future Star” survey.
At 21 years old, the Braves’ second baseman is one of the most dynamic players the game has to offer, ranking among the best and brightest in most major categories. Entering Atlanta’s series finale against the Miami Marlins, Albies matched Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Francisco Lindor in home runs, George Springer in overall offensive production and Nolan Arenado in total value.
And now, odd as it sounds given that company, it is time to adjust.
As his genuinely surprising power surge buoys his overall offensive production, Albies’ on-base percentage now sits at .306 as opponents search for ways to counteract his aggressiveness. During the season’s first month — a span in which Albies challenged for the franchise’s first National League Player of the Month award since Freddie Freeman’s 2016 campaign — Albies swung at 260 pitches, the highest mark in baseball right ahead of J.D. Martinez and Giancarlo Stanton. Per Pitch Info, 36.6 percent of those swings were at pitches outside of the strike zone. Yet Albies was still able to post a .341 OBP. In May, Albies’ swing rate is the highest in baseball among players who have seen 150 or more pitches and third-highest among players facing 100-plus pitches behind only the current champion of bad-ball hitters (Cubs star Javy Baez) and a slumping Red Sox infielder (Eduardo Nunez).
The problem? A higher percentage of those swings have come against pitches outside of the zone and his productivity has fallen as a result:
Due to his top-of-the-scouting-scale bat control, Albies’ aggression is to be expected and welcomed. He hasn’t posted a double-digit walk rate since rookie ball. Still, as pitchers make their adjustments he’s walked just once in 58 plate appearances this month, a bottom-10 mark in baseball. That will likely need to change, particularly as his 50-homer pace (presumably) returns to the thermosphere.
Albies’ recent issues were on display during his 0-for-5 Sunday in Miami, dropping his monthly on-base percentage to .224. In his first at-bat, he worked a 3-1 count from right-hander José Ureña before fouling off a pitch in the zone and making contact on a belt-high two-seamer well off the plate for the first out. The pitch would have been ball four. Instead, he walked back to the dugout. In his second opportunity, Albies swung at the first pitch, a borderline fastball low and away. In AB No. 3, he chased well below the zone for a dribbler that made it a couple feet from home plate. A lineout on a grooved pitch and a strikeout ended his day as he slammed his bat to the ground, clearly frustrated after reaching base 13 times in the past 12 games.
Pitch locations against Albies resemble those of another switch-hitting middle infielder: Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor.
In 2015, the former eighth overall pick out of Puerto Rico debuted as an aggressive 21-year-old switch-hitter who punished southpaws while still figuring out his improving left-handed swing. Sound vaguely familiar? He arrived as a star and he’s maintained his status as one of the game’s preeminent position players. That's the preferred next step for Albies. And while Lindor will never steal Joey Votto's Work The Count Club membership card, his walk rate has climbed from 5 percent during his 2014 stint in Triple-A to 6.2 percent as a rookie to maintaining a consistent 8.3 percent clip since 2016 — slightly behind Albies’ own 57-game rookie mark.
Right-handers and left-handers alike stay below the zone and to the outside against both infield standouts. In terms of pitch selection, Lindor is seeing a higher percentage of two-seam fastballs while Albies sees more changeups, but the "way down or way away" strategy seems to have taken hold for both players. However, while dealing with similar pitch location profiles, Lindor is swinging at far fewer pitches and making more contact in the zone. It’s also significantly better contact, likely due to the fact that Cleveland’s shortstop is not chasing or reaching for pitches outside the zone nearly as often. Per Statcast, Albies’ expected weighted on-base average — taking into account quality of contact, strikeouts and walks — is sitting nearly 100 points lower (.339) than Lindor's. Albies' 70-grade speed advantage will provide an added boost in the OBP department over the course of his career, but it will never simply erase hiccups in the plate discipline or quality of contact departments.
This is not meant to directly compare a 21-year-old just exiting his 96th career game with an established MVP candidate in his mid-20s prime. Consider it to be more of a possible development track for the former. After all, here’s the initial 95-game sample size for both players:
Freddie Freeman boarded the team jet in Miami sporting a .331/.433/.588 slash line, eight home runs and another ridiculous series in his rearview mirror.
Freeman’s place among baseball’s top hitters is well-documented and entering the season he found himself on the short list of MVP favorites even before his team surprised the league by jumping out to a 24-15 start. Even his slumps are short-lived. In the 10-game stretch heading into Miami, the 28-year-old first baseman was reaching base only 27 percent of the time with three extra-base hits. That’s not Freddie Freeman. His 18 plate appearances in South Florida turned that around: 3 home runs, six singles and three walks.
In terms of overall offensive production (173 wRC+) Freeman trails only Mookie Betts, Mike Trout, Manny Machado and Aaron Judge. Translation: His NL MVP candidacy is once again nestled comfortably among the National League’s best players.
He’s the best first baseman in baseball at the moment — it’s not particularly close in terms of wins above replacement — and he’s on pace for a 33-homer season with a 1.020 OPS.
Fifteen different players have reached the 30-homer, 1.000-OPS in a single season since 2010 — Miguel Cabrera did it three times, Votto twice — and five went on to win their respective league’s MVP award: Votto and Josh Hamilton (2010), Miguel Cabrera (2013), Bryce Harper (2015) and Giancarlo Stanton (2017).
It’s not a prerequisite benchmark for prospective MVP names, but it’s a decent start for a middle-of-the-lineup bat who does not play a premium position.
As Freeman has learned over the past few seasons, it's a long road to the franchise's first MVP award since 1999. But he is right on track.
3. Sean Newcomb offers another reminder to exercise patience with prospects
One hundred innings into Sean Newcomb’s career spawned a very different perspective than the 46 2/3 frames since, a rookie-season glimpse reflected in assumptions that he’d never throw strikes, that his arsenal was better-suited for a relief role, that the winner of the Andrelton Simmons trade had long since been declared.
Well, there’s still quite a bit of runway remaining on that trade debate — Simmons has been fantastic in an Angels uniform, compiling 7.1 wins above replacement for a top-15 mark among MLB position players, and Newcomb is just beginning to scratch the surface of his potential; Simmons is also a free agent after 2020 while the big southpaw is under club control through 2024 — but the 24-year-old is providing another reason for patience and optimism with this farm system.
On Sunday, Newcomb became the only Braves pitcher over the past 110 seasons to allow zero runs and two hits or fewer in three consecutive starts. (Think of the company he keeps in this franchise’s history.) He’s now sitting on a 20-inning scoreless streak and he’s lowered his ERA to 2.51. The peripherals match the production, too. His 28.4 percent strikeout rate ranks top-15 among qualified starters and he’s keeping the ball in the park. The walk remain a tick high, but there’s little arguing with his 3.08 fielding-independent pitching.
The only qualified left-handers with better ERA and FIP marks? Gio Gonzalez, Chris Sale and Patrick Corbin. It’s too early to pronounce Newcomb a member of an exclusive group of lefty starts just yet, but he’s producing like one.
He’s been Atlanta’s best starter by a comfortable margin.