There has been much discussion surrounding the lineup since the Braves signed Josh Donaldson to a one-year deal. Not surprisingly, Ronald Acuña is aching to stay in the leadoff spot after his absurd run in the second half of last season. Josh Donaldson has not been shy about his desire to bat second, and of course, Freeman will always be penciled in third. That may be the best start to any lineup in all of baseball; however, it leaves the Braves with a lot to be desired at the cleanup spot and the rest of their order for that matter.
This is a situation that is going to play itself out as the season carries on. Ronald Acuña will likely begin the year in the leadoff role, and who could blame the manager for doing that after the way he tore up the league in that spot. If he begins to look more normal in that position in 2019, then Snitker can mull over swapping things up.
Donaldson and Freeman could indeed follow him, but what will take the pressure off a lot of these decisions is the emergence of a player that can assume a role in the top half of the order. And there is not a better candidate to do so than Ozzie Albies.
Albies is fresh off his first full season in the major leagues, and for the most part, he dazzled on the way to the All-Star game and a 3.8 WAR. The 21-year old from Curacao hit .268 with 24 home runs and 72 RBIs, but his struggles in the season’s second half was a significant factor in why the Braves offense wasn’t nearly as dynamic down the stretch.
In April, Albies was on an absolute terror, slashing .298/.341/.647 with an unreal .988 OPS. Now, those numbers were never going to be sustainable over an entire season, but Albies still put up more than respectable stats in the three months following. It was his August and September that saw a severe drop-off.
In those months, Albies flirted with the Mendoza line, could not keep his OBP over. 300 and lost nearly all the pop that he had showcased in the first half of the season. That’s enough for the most optimistic Braves fan to question what type of player the Braves will be getting in 2019, but there is plenty of reason to believe he can bounce back and be the All-Star caliber player he was for the majority of 2018.
The length of an MLB-season for younger players – especially ones who are barely old enough to drink – is a real issue. By August, Albies resembled a player who was worn down by his first 162-game grind. After all, he rarely received a day off, playing in 158 games. That’s something that he should be able to adjust to as he continues in his career. It is also a plus that Albies will not be asked to play in 162 games this season.
Johan Camargo has emerged as the Braves super-utility option after the addition of Donaldson. His presence will allow Albies to take a couple of extra days off for rest, specifically against right-handed pitching, which Ozzie has struggled against – even as a switch hitter. Last year, Albies slashed .231/.283/.412 against RHP compared to .335/.357/.548 against LHP.
But digging deeper into the analytics side of things, Ozzie was subject to a bit of bad luck at the plate last season. He had a .285 BABIP according to FanGraphs, which is low throughout an entire season. Comparatively, Ozzie’s previous career-low in the minor leagues was .342. Some of that has to do with the jump in competition, but Albies was able to put up a .316 BABIP in 57 games with the Braves in 2017 – a 31-point discrepancy compared to his 2018 BABIP. By the law of averages, we should see a spike in his 2019 batting average, providing his strikeout numbers remain the same.
Which brings us to our next area of concern; Albies is among the most aggressive hitters in the entire league. He swings at the first-pitch an outrageous amount, and swings at every pitch – for that matter – a bit more than he should. Last season, Ozzie swung at nearly 40% of the pitches he saw outside of the strike zone, which is 10% higher than the league average. Plate discipline is undoubtedly his most notable issue, and while the Braves don’t want to limit his aggressiveness, they will constantly be working on his approach. This is something that should naturally improve as he gets more at-bats versus major league pitching.
Albies’ 2018 campaign was far from flawless. There are legitimate questions regarding his plate discipline and his numbers against right-handed pitching. But he essentially was a rookie, and there were even more reasons to be excited about what the future holds. If he proves to be the more of the player he was in the first half than the second, he will be a perfect bat in the two-hole or perhaps even hit cleanup, creating a much more high-powered look to Atlanta’s offense.