The Great Oz(zie)

April 19, 2018
  
Ozzie Albies is on a tear. As of this writing, he is pacing the National League in doubles, extra base hits, and total bases. He was leading in runs scored, but Bryce Harper passed him when the Braves had an off-day Monday. Most surprisingly, he’s cracked five homeruns in the early goings, after hitting six in fifty-six games last year.
 
Ozzie Albies has been really, really great this year.
 
All of us should have seen this coming.
 
That we didn’t see it coming is attributable, I think, to the many really great rookie seasons we witnessed last year. Aaron Judge hit fifty-two homeruns. Cody Bellinger hit thirty-nine. Rhys Hoskins hit eighteen in a third of a season, and just as Hoskins started coming down to earth, Matt Olson decided to copy him, swatting twenty-four dingers in fifty-nine games. That’s not even mentioning the great first seasons of Rafael Devers and Paul DeJong and Andrew Benintendi. There were a lot of rookie hitters hitting a lot of homeruns, and Ozzie Albies’ fine start got lost in the shuffle.
 
So here’s a little tidbit for you: there is a reasonable argument that Ozzie Albies had the most impressiverookie season last year. His rookie season, understood within the context of his age and position, was more impressive than the seasons of Rhys Hoskins and Matt Olson and Andrew Benintendi. And a reasonable case can be made that his 2017 season was more remarkable than the seasons that won unanimous Jackie Robinson Awards: Aaron Judge’s monster campaign in the Bronx, and Clay Bellinger’s thirty-nine homer season for the Dodgers.
 
Let’s start with Aaron Judge. Aaron Judge hit fifty-two homeruns last year, which is a damned impressive accomplishment for anyone, never mind a rookie. He posted an 8.1 WAR and finished second in the AL MVP vote, and he certainly deserved that slot. He was terrific.
 
And he was twenty-five-years old. While it’s impressive to hit fifty homeruns in any context, there have been other twenty-five-year old outfielders who have hit an impressive number of homeruns. Babe Ruth hit 54 homers as a twenty-five-year-old. Mickey Mantle hit 56 as a twenty-four-year-old. Willie Mays and Ralph Kiner both hit 51 homeruns as twenty-four-year old’s. Reggie Jackson hit 47 at twenty-three, in a pitcher’s park. Joe DiMaggio hit 46 at twenty-two, in a park that didn’t help him any.
 
That’s fantastic company to keep, of course. All of those men are in the Hall-of-Fame, and most of them are inner-circle fellows. Aaron Judge had a season comparable to the seasons of some of the game’s greatest hitters. Adjusting for league and park contexts, his season was a little behind luminaries DiMaggio and Mantle and Mays and Reggie, but not too far behind them. He’s in their club.
 
What about Cody Bellinger?
 
Bellinger hit 39 home runs as a twenty-one-year-old outfielder, which is a little more impressive than what Judge did. How rare was Bellinger’s season?
 
Mel Ott hit 42 homeruns as a twenty-year old. Frank Robinson hit 38 at twenty. Albert Pujols hit 37 homeruns at twenty-one years of age. Giancarlo Stanton hit 34. Jose Canseco and Miguel Cabrera hit 33, both at twenty-one.
 
Like Judge, Bellinger finds himself in good company. And like Judge, he isn’t quite on par with the greats: his rookie season wasn’t quite as strong as the seasons of Ott, Robinson, or Pujols, though he rates as equal to Stanton, Cabrera, and Canseco.
 
Which brings us to Ozzie Albies.
 
Albies had a quality season last year, though it did not warrant a fraction of the attention garnered by other rookies. After being called up on August 1st, Albies posted a respectable .286 batting average while swatting six home runs, nine doubles, and five triples in 244 plate appearances. He walked 21 times and struck out 36 times. He stole eight bases in nine attempts. He played terrific defense at second.
 
That seems, on the surface, like a fine start to a career, but it doesn’t draw the eye the way that fifty-two homeruns draws the eye. Albies demonstrated a good base of skills to build on, and the consensus, going into 2018, was that Albies would be a useful player going forward. The Braves were lucky to have him.
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But there’s something very interesting about Ozzie Albies’ 2017 season, something I haven’t seen anyone point out, and that is that his first year in the majors has no precedent in the history of baseball.
 
Let me say that again: what Ozzie Albies did in 2017 hasn’t ever happened.
 
Let’s start with the bat. To my mind, the one thing everyone missed last year is just how terrific a hitter Albies was. As a twenty-year old second baseman, Albies posted a Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) of 112. That means that his offensive contribution, adjusted for position and ballpark, was twelve percent better than the league average.
 
Twelve percent seems like a minor thing, but it’s a massive marker of future ability when you are talking about a very young middle infielder. That is what Alan Trammell did for his career, hit twelve percent better than the league. Alan Trammell didn’t cross a Weighted Runs Created Plus of 100 until his fourth year in the majors, and then he didn’t do it again until his seventh year. Ozzie Albies has already done it.
 
Albies was a great hitter last year. In fact, Albies was historically great: no second-basemen in the history of baseball has had a better Age-20 season with the bat than Ozzie Albies. Only one other player has come close: 
 
Name
Team
wRC+
Ozzie Albies
Braves
112
Roberto Alomar
Padres
107
Dick Bartell
Pirates
100
Rougned Odor
Rangers
91
Larry Doyle
Giants
87
Bill Mazeroski
Pirates
86
Frankie Gustine
Pirates
86
Bobby Doerr
Red Sox
82
Dib Williams
Athletics
76
Jurickson Profar
Rangers
74
 
Using 200 plate appearances as a cut-off, Ozzie Albies clips Roberto Alomar as the best-hitting twenty-year old second baseman in baseball history. That’s just hitting, and it’s not like Albies is a slouch with the glove or on the bases. His hitting tool probably rate as the worst facet of his game, and that tool suggests that he was better at 20 than any other second baseman in baseball history.
 
You can get more comparables if you expand the list. If you add Age-20 shortstops, Ozzie Albies is passed by Alex Rodriguez (134), Rogers Hornsby (140), Carlos Correa (136) and Arky Vaughn (114).
 
If, instead, you expand your list to include Age-21 second basemen, you add Larry Doyle (135), Mookie Betts (129), Joe Morgan (129), Eddie Collins (119), Rod Carew (117), Ben Chapman (117), Delino DeSheilds (117), and another Roberto Alomar season (110).
 
WRC+ is a broad view of Albies’ offensive production: we can also look at individual components. Upon reaching the majors, Albies improved his walk-rate and lowered his strikeout rate:
 
Year
Lg
PA
BB%
K%
2016
AAA
247
7.7%
15.8%
2017
AAA
448
6.3%
20.1%
2017
MLB
244
8.6%
14.8%
 
A thousand elements conspire to make the transition into the majors extremely difficult for a hitter: there’s more pressure, the competition is tougher, you’re living in a new city and playing with new teammates, under a new manager. And the game count: the opposing team is committing all of their resources to beat you, because the games actually matter.
 
In the face of those challenges, Ozzie Albies arrived to the majors and improved his walk rate. Facing the best pitchers in the world, he struck out less.
 
I said that there is no precedent to Albies’, but Roberto Alomar seems like a very easy comparable. And Roberto Alomar would be one helluva comparable: Alomar was a great player, and the match fits. Alomar was exceptionally fast, as Albies is. Alomar was a terrific defensive player and a hitter with strong contact skills. Alomar was a smart player; he possessed an instinctual grasp of where he needed to be on the field, and when he could take an extra base. He controlled the game: he was a rare player whose seemed to always be in the middle of the action. Albies is like that, too. 
 
The one difference between the two players is power: Albies has shown significantly more power in his early career than Alomar. Robbie’s Isolated Power in his rookie season was .116. In his second season, that ISO dropped to .080. Alomar eventually developed power, but it didn't happen until he was traded to Toronto, where his Isolated Power jumped to .141.
 
Ozzie Albies posted an Isolated Power of .171 last year. That total comfortably eclipsed Rougned Odor’s .141 mark from 2014, which was the previous high in ISO for an Age-20 second baseman. And while we can expect some regression, Albies is currently sitting at a .333 ISO in 2018, which suggests that the power wasn’t a fluke. Ozzie has all of Roberto Alomar’s gifts as a defensive player and baserunner and contact hitter, and he has the added ability to crack dingers. He’s Robbie Alomar with power.
 
And we haven’t seen that before, not from someone that young, at that position on the diamond.
 
I don’t think people quite saw this last year. I read plenty of articles about Rafael Devers and Cody Bellinger and Aaron Judge and Rhys Hoskins and Matt Olson, and almost nothing about Ozzie Albies. Coming into this year, there was extensive hype around Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Ronald Acuna and Gleyber Torres, but any mention of Albies seemed to peg him as the second-fiddle to Acuna.
 
This is striking, to me, because 1) Albies is younger than most of those other players, and 2) he’s shown the ability to do a lot of things very well at the major league level. The statistical evidence is all there suggesting that Ozzie Albies has the potential to be a generational talent, and the hype hasn’t quite caught up.
 
So this is my effort to catch up. Ozzie Albies’ performance this year isn’t a fluke, and he isn’t going to regress significantly: what we are seeing right now is his real level of ability, and that ability has the chance to find him ranked him with the likes of Correa and Trout and Lindor and Machado as one of the most valuable players in the game.  
 
Start paying attention to him. 
 
 
Dave Fleming lives in western Virginia. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com
 
 
 
 
 
 

COMMENTS (9 Comments, most recent shown first)

astros34
I don't think Mookie Betts belongs on your list of age-21 second basemen; he only played 14 games there. He played 28 in CF, 37 total in the OF.
7:24 PM Apr 23rd
 
OldBackstop
Two notes: when Nimmo was brought back from AAA last week and given a start, he went 3-5 with a home run and a triple. Mock him if you like, but he could start some places... I'll bet he would put Jackie Bradley Jr on the pine, don't you think? In fact, former CF Gold Glover Juan Lagares is having a little renaissance start, hitting .379, not sure Bradley would even make the Mets team.

Secondly, the Mets don't have any player in the top ten in OBP, but the team is third in the NL.
12:24 PM Apr 23rd
 
OldBackstop
I'm not all that big a Nimmo fan....I only asked you to compare him as you were leaning on wRC+ and his numbers eclipse Albies despite his unstar-ish reputation.
11:54 AM Apr 23rd
 
DaveFleming
Ha!

To my mind, it's interesting that two of the three best teams in the NL East can't get out of their own way to play their best outfielders.

While I don't put Nimmo in quite the same catagory as Albies, I'm confident that he's a more useful player to the Mets than Jay Bruce. The Mets, as I've noted pretty much every time the topic has come up, are a team that really needs a couple on-base guys: they've got lots of pop, but no one is ever on base when they go yard. Nimmo solves that problem: he is posting an on-base percentage that's over .500 right now. A smart team would ride that out a while, and see what they've got. The Mets shipped him down to Triple-A, and then brought him back to platoon.

The Braves are making the same error: they've said that Ronald Acuna isn't 'ready' because he kicked a couple games in the minors. Balony, guys: Acuna is a better outfielder than anyone they've currently got playing in the outfield, and the service stuff deadline has passed. The Braves are just dragging their feet, or trying to make a point, and it's a silly point to make. Acuna was the best hitter in the minors last year, and he was the best hitter in spring training. Get him up.

Anyway, I have more to say about all of that, but I don't know if I have enough to say to write a whole article.

Also: Albies is back in front in runs scored, and he's already matched his HR total from last season. We'll save a spot on the bandwagon for you, Holmes.
9:40 AM Apr 23rd
 
bjames
Comparing Brandon Nimmo to Ozzie Albies is like comparing Michael Cohen to Oliver Wendell Holmes.
10:48 PM Apr 22nd
 
OldBackstop
Great article, Dave.

Waddya think of Brandon Nimmo? He had a higher wRC+ last year as a rook than Albies (117 to 112 in similar PAs), has a higher one this year (236 to 172, altho Nimmo has only had 29 plate appearances), can't get a starting job, and was sent down to the minors briefly last week in a roster juggle.


5:19 PM Apr 20th
 
thedanholmes
So, less than 20 games into the season we should now believe Mr Albies is a middle infield version of Mike Trout? Forgive me if I wait a little longer to drop on your bandwagon. His minor league stats show he can be very good. But baseball history is littered with players who looked like Rogers Hornsby for three-four weeks, even when they were in their early twenties. If he can be Johnny Ray that will be a nice career.
1:10 PM Apr 20th
 
BarryBondsFan25
For my own personal use (fantasy baseball), I altered Bill's rookie score method just a touch when it came to the player's speed score component. I applied Bill's speed formula to the player's speed score found on FanGraphs to come up with a slightly different rookie score version. Anyway, Ozzie Albies 2017 score totaled 749 behind only Judge (976) and Bellinger (880) which is why I targeted Albies in my draft. So far that has worked out very well.


7:49 AM Apr 20th
 
bjames
Thanks, Dave. I wasn't asleep on Albies, although I usually am on young players. I realized about 30 years ago that I didn't have enough brain cells left to keep track of young players who were supposed to be good in a couple of years, so I basically had to let that slip. But for some reason I picked up on Albies. We had a strong projection for him in the Handbook, and in the Top Ten Shows on MLB I initially had Albies as one of my top second basemen. I had to cut him for some reason, as I recall, but I do agree that he's. ..what did you call him. A generational talent.
3:31 PM Apr 19th
 
 
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