Ozzie Albies: Work in progress, but already impressive

NEW YORK – The Braves already felt pretty good about prospect Ozzie Albies as a long-term piece of the puzzle, but his performance over his first two months in the majors has strengthened that view and erased any doubts about the little second baseman’s potential as a big-impact player.

Switch-hitting rookie Ozzie Albies is already making a big impact, but the Braves think adjustments he’s working on will help assure long-term success. (Getty Images)

Diminutive but dynamic, Albies has hit .306 with a .394 on-base percentage and .879 OPS in his past 35 games, and had his third homer in a 12-game span Monday in a 9-2 win against the Mets in the first game of a doubleheader at Citi Field.

“Leverage,” Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer said earlier Monday, when I asked him what makes Albies special and about the ongoing adjustments the 20-year-old is making to continue his progress and sustain long-term success. “He’s got so much leverage. With these (Seitzer holds up his hands, to demonstrate perhaps Albies’ greatest strength). What a gift.”

Albies is not more than 5 feet 8 (in cleats) and perhaps 165 pounds, but has arms like steel cables. Biceps ready to burst through the hi-tech fabric shirt he wears beneath his uniform. Washboard abs that look as if body fat decided to give up and not even bother trying to cling to the kid from Curacao.

Which is all well and good, but wouldn’t mean a thing if Albies didn’t have baseball skills. And he’s got those in abundance. Soft, lightning-quick hands. Great footwork around second base. A strong arm.

He’s either the fastest player on the team or in a virtual tie with Lane Adams, who might have more top-end speed but slightly less quickness out of the blocks than Albies with his piston-like short legs.

Braves manager Brian Snitker, like so many others in the dugout, loves to watch an Albies at-bat in anticipation of a ball hit to the gap. When that happens, it’s off to the races and only a matter of time before Albies’ helmet flies off as he caroms around the base paths en route to a double or triple.

“Oz just keeps doing it,” Snitker said. It’s fun to watch this kid play. He’s another very skilled young player that’s going to be on that TV every now and then with stuff he’s going to do in this game.”

But for that to happen, for him to be part of a long-term middle-infield tandem with Dansby Swanson that the Braves could be a foundational piece of championship teams, Albies will need to continue making adjustments. Swanson learned that about himself earlier this season when the presumed next Face of the Franchise suddenly slumped, and kept slumping until Swanson was finally demoted to Triple-A.

Swanson has been a lot better since returning from a stint in the minors, a relief to many observers who wondered if expectations might have been too high after the shortstop’s initial success in a two-month late-season call to the majors last season, when he hit .302 with a .361 OBP and .803 OPS in 38 games.

Since returning from the minor, he’s hit more like he did during those two months and less like he did during his extended struggles earlier this season. After hitting .213 with a .599 OPS in 95 games through July 26 before he was optioned to Triple-A, Swanson has hit .277 with a .741 OPS in 43 games since returning to the majors. (However, he hit .333 with an .879 OPS in his first 28 games back, but only .167 with a .478 OPS in his past 15 through Monday’s doubleheader.)

Which brings us to Albies, and how Seitzer wants to help put the second baseman in the best position to enjoy long-term sustained success. It’s why special assistant Chipper Jones and Triple-A hitting coach John Moses worked with Albies on things like balance and toning down some complexities particularly in the switch-hitter’s left-handed swing while he was at Gwinnett, and why Seitzer ramped up that work and more once Albies got to the big leagues.

Albies is one of the first Braves to the ballpark every day and goes through early sessions with Seitzer, who pounds home the message and thought process in why they’re having Albies reduce the pronounced leg lift in his swing and some of the excess movement in his bat before he rifles it into hitting position.

The coaches at Gwinnett and now with the big club wanted Albies to stop hitting so many fly balls that tended to get caught at the warning track, and instead hit line drives, hit the ball on the ground and to the gaps to utilize his speed, and if he did things right the home runs and extra-base hits would come naturally.

So far, so good. Albies hit .179 (10-for-56) with a .230 OBP and .339 slugging percentage (.569 OPS) and 32.7 ground-ball rate in his first 16 games in the majors, and has hit .306 (41-for-134) with a .394 OBP and .485 slugging percentage (.879 OPS) and a 42.5 ground-ball rate in 35 games since.

By the way, for what it’s worth, the Braves were 6-10 in his first 16 games and are 17-18 in his past 35 games.

With runners in scoring position, Albies is hitting an impressive .283 (15-for-53) with six extra-base hits (three homers), six walks, eight strikeouts, a .344 OBP, robus .528 slugging percentage and .873 OPS.

Is the hitting coach pleased with Albies’ progress?

“Yeah. And for me he’s halfway there,” Seitzer said. “Maybe a hair over halfway. He’s still got cleaning up to do – we’ve talked about that – in the offseason, and adjustments, and how (to go about it) from a drill standpoint. He’s tried so hard for so long to make these adjustments and had a difficult time doing it. He’s still focused on it and working on it, but it’s just not where it needs to be yet. So it’s just going to take some more critical surgery workout and drill work in order to get the things finally finished off.”

When I mentioned to Seitzer than I know some outsider observers will say, “But why mess with his stance when he he’s hitting,” Seitzer didn’t hesitate with his reply.

“Dansby hit when he came up last year, too,” he said. “Dansby had much less going on as far as a cleaner swing, that when pitchers…. I think  Ozzie’s got better hands than Dansby, but Dansby’s got a cleaner swing. I think when pitchers start making adjustments – (Albies) is a talented little son of a buck, there’s no doubt. But we just have to be careful with expectations for young players, because there’s still growing pains that have to be endured.”

This is the thing that every major league veteran player, every coach, every manager, every scout will tell you: When hitters first arrive in the big leagues, opponents don’t know much if anything about them. They’re not focused on stopping that hitter, they’re focused on one or two or three big guns in the lineup. But as a young hitter has more and more success, and after teams face him multiple times, and particularly in his second season in the big leagues, opposing teams will develop a detailed scouting report on him. A “book” on the hitter.

And if he has a weakness, any weakness, that weakness absolutely will be exploited. Count on that.

So, the goal is to simplify Albies’ swing, less moving parts, which can be particularly beneficial in helping a young hitter avoid extended slumps. Things don’t get as out of whack for a hitter when he doesn’t have so much going on at the plate.

It’s worth noting, Albies’ lowest average (.234) and OPS (.696) have been in 25 games vs. NL East opponents, all of whom have now seen him in multiple series. He’s hit .361/.984 in 10 games vs. NL Central opponents, .257/.864 in 10 games vs. NL West opponents and .280/.748 in six games vs. AL West opponents.

And after hitting .277/.799 in 28 August games, he’s hit .258/.778 in 23 September games.

So where does Albies stand with the improvements and adjustments he’s making?

“He’s better with his leg kick; it’s not so high,” Seitzer said. “He’s only coming off the ground maybe four or five inches. He gets big at times; I have to remind him, stay, low. But the bat tip is the biggest thing (that still needs work). He’s got less going on from a distance standpoint, from his start to his launch position. But he’s still got the bat tip where he starts it off flat, but then he gets up here (Seitzer demonstrates how Albies tips the bat forward when his hands are up, just before the pitch is delivered) and then when he goes and takes his hands back you see the bat tip forward, which means it has to come back in order to get in position (to hit).

“So we want him, when he comes up, to maintain that angle when the hands go back, then it’s more of a direct path.”

Make no mistake, Albies can succeed with flaws in his swing. He has already. But Seitzer is looking big picture, trying to help the kid get the most out of his immense talent and help him avoid becoming frustrated when he slumps by working to make sure he does all he can to limit the difficult stretches. Particularly for a switch-hitter, it’s easy for things to get out of sync.

So far, here’s what the switch-hitting Albies has done from both sides of the plate:

Batting left-handed: .253 (37-for-146) with 13 extra-base hits, 15 walks, 29 strikeouts, .327 OBP, .411 slugging percentage, .738 OPS. Batting right-handed: .318 (14-for-44) with five extra-base hits, seven walks, six strikeouts, .412 OBP, .545 slugging, .957 OPS

“He’s made good adjustments from an approach standpoint to where he’s really trying to stay low (and hit it at) the shortstop,” Seitzer said. “Between the pitcher and shortstop is where he’s trying to hit the ball. Instead of trying to hit a line drive the other way, because when he loses that barrel, they’re lazy fly balls. And he can’t afford to hit a lazy fly ball. He’s got to stay low and hard and then let the ball jump into the gap and out of the park on occasion. But I believe that’s probably the biggest thing that has helped him have the success that he’s had, is being able to control his path with the barrel.

“The hardest thing is, when somebody has pop you don’t want to tell them not to use it. You want to let it happen, not try to make it happen. Because most guys when they hit homer go, ‘Holy cow, I wasn’t trying to a homer.’ When you’re trying to hit a homer you usually come back and sit by me and talk about it.”

By the way, in 23 Braves wins, Albies has hit .315 (28-for-89) with an .871 OPS. In 28 Braves losses, he’s hit .228 (23-for-101) with a .716 OPS

The little man looks fully capable of making a big impact.

• I’ll close with a great one from Roxy Music, since it’s Bryan Ferry‘s birthday.

“MORE THAN THIS” by Roxy Music

Bryan Ferry

I could feel at the time
There was no way of knowing
Fallen leaves in the night
Who can say where they’re blowing
As free as the wind
And hopefully learning
Why the sea on the tide
Has no way of turning
More than this – there is nothing
More than this – tell me one thing
More than this – there is nothing
It was fun for a while
There was no way of knowing
Like dream in the night
Who can say where we’re going
No care in the world
Maybe I’m learning
Why the sea on the tide
Has no way of turning
More than this – there is nothing
More than this – tell me one thing
More than this – there is nothing

 


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