Inciarte has proven to be a valuable piece, mostly for his defense, but also as a contact bat. However, he is a notoriously slow starter, and it has become difficult to argue that he is not the worst hitter in the Braves’ lineup. That’s not the type of player you want receiving the most at-bats on the team and hitting in front of the daunting trio of Donaldson, Freeman, and Acuña. It was a matter of time before Snitker found the right guy to replace Inciarte in the order.
That man, through the season’s first fifteen games, has been Ozzie Albies. Much like last year, Albies is off to a torrid beginning to the year, slashing .328/.397/.459 with a .856 OPS. The 22-year old, who just inked a seven-year, $35 million extension with the Braves, had nine home runs and 20 RBIs with a .647 slugging percentage and .988 OPS in April of 2018. But as has been well-documented, the rest of his 2018 did not follow suit. Albies never had an OBP over .309 after April and even hit .198 with a .270 OBP in Septemeber. That’s not going to cut it in the leadoff role either.
So what is the difference in Albies from 2018 to 2019?
To this point, it has a lot to do with plate discipline. Ozzie is a well-known overly aggressive hitter. That is never going to change. He still swings at a high-percentage of balls out of the strike zone and loves hacking at the first pitch.
With that said, Albies has already coaxed seven walks in the first fifteen games, which puts him on pace for 80 walks this season – 44 more than he had last season. He’s also avoiding strikeouts, recording only eight of them, which gives him a BB/K ratio of 0.88 compared to his 0.31 ratio in 2018. That’s a monumental difference that probably isn’t sustainable, but does show his plate discipline, as expected, is developing in his second full season.
Another thing to look at is his numbers against breaking and offspeed pitches. Albies had an XBA of .222 on breaking balls and .255 on offspeed stuff a year ago – up to .315 and .296 respectively during the early stages of 2019. Where that has improved the most is in the left-handed batter’s box
Albies hit .335 right-handed in 2018 with a .548 slugging percentage and .905 OPS. From the left side, he hit a pedestrian .231 with a .412 slugging percentage and .696 OPS, and what he particularly struggled against was breaking balls from right-handed pitchers. Last year, he saw 457 of them and hit a measly .179 with a .175 XBA. This year he has faced 57 breaking balls from righties and is hitting .333 on such pitches with an XBA of .336. Once again, small sample size but massive development.
Albies’ 2019 BB/K numbers are a bit of fool’s gold. He still has a nasty habit of chasing pitches out of the zone; he’s just making contact with more of those pitches. That number will improve from 2018 to 2019, but not as dramatically as it has thus far. However, his numbers against breaking balls, especially from the left side, are a sign that Albies might be able to hold down the leadoff spot for good. Hitting in front of Donaldson, Freeman, and Acuña will also allow him to see better pitches than he ever has before. Nevertheless, Albies has a new role now. He must be willing to take what the pitchers will give him and focus on one thing – getting on base.