During this time last year, most people didn’t have infielder Hanser Alberto breaking camp with the Orioles. I include myself among that list. But keeping him turned out to be a great decision by the club. He rotated between second and third base while contributing both in the field and at the dish. He got the job done, but did it in an unusual way.
In 139 games in 2019, Alberto slashed .305/.329/.422 with 12 home runs. The .305 batting average obviously looks marvelous, but I continue to be stunned at the on-base percentage of .329. I don’t believe I’ve ever noticed a player be seen as a quality regular contributor while only having .014 separation between his average and on-base percentage, but Alberto found a way to pull it off.
The 27-year-old infielder doesn’t play like most in the game. When you think of a “free-swinger,” you usually envision a player who swings for the fences, strikes out a bunch and doesn’t walk a ton. Only the latter is true for Alberto.
Among all qualified major league hitters in 2019, Alberto tied for the second-lowest walk rate at 2.9 percent. His tie was with Tim Anderson and the only walk rate that was lower was Kevin Pillar’s at 2.8 percent.
So if he isn’t walking, that must mean he’s chasing a lot of pitches and striking out often, right?
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Yes, he’s chasing a lot of pitches, but he almost never strikes out. Alberto’s 9.1-percent strikeout rate was the lowest among all qualified hitters last season. Of the top-20 lowest strikeout rates in 2019, he was one of just three players to also have a walk rate under four percent. Alberto shares this company with Pillar and new Orioles’ teammate Jose Iglesias.
To hold a .305 batting average throughout a full season, he must have been hitting the ball hard, right?
Nope. Alberto had a hard-hit rate of 24.6 percent last year, which was the lowest among qualified hitters. He wasn’t always just poking it around, though, don’t get me wrong. His 17.5-percent softly-hit rate was tied for 43rd-highest with Jose Altuve. But Alberto did have the highest medium-hit percentage in the majors at 57.9 percent. All in all, Alberto was worse than league average in all three categories of soft-hit, medium-hit and hard-hit rates last season.
Well if he held a .305 batting average and didn’t hit the ball hard often, he must be a pure contact, spray-the-ball hitter.
Contact hitter, that he is. But he didn’t spray the ball all over the field frequently. Of 135 qualified hitters, Alberto’s 22.1-percent opposite-field rate tied for 104th-highest. He made not-so-hard contact, but he made it work mainly by pulling the ball and going up the middle.
He also posted the second-highest rate for swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone and combined that with the fourth-highest rate of making contact with pitches outside of the zone. To post a .305 batting average with that type of approach does in fact involve some luck. But I also don’t think that will make him change.
Alberto steps in the box with a “see ball, hit ball” mentality. He’s not there to walk. He’s not there to scorch the baseball. He’s not there to please the analytics crowd (and I’m in that crowd!) He’s there to put the ball in play and see what happens, even if the pitch he’s doing it with is as low as his ankles or as high as his neck.
A variety of different scenarios could occur for Alberto this season. He could stick with the same approach and wind up with similar results in back-to-back years. He could stick with the approach but not be as fortunate, resulting in a lower batting line and less excitement. He could set his sights on walking more or, at least, working on better pitch selection so he can find a good pitch to drive more often. And it wouldn’t surprise me to see him have success – or failure – with such a new approach.
Alberto made the team out of spring training in 2019, which I did not see coming. He stuck on the roster all season long while playing solid defense at second and third base, which I did not see coming. He slashed .305/.329/.422 with 12 home runs by swinging at more pitches than most players in the game, which I did not see coming.
He’s projected to start the 2020 season as the Orioles’ everyday second baseman. No matter what the results show by the end of the year, I’m much more prepared for what’s coming. Alberto has surprised me enough already. I love relating new-age analytics to performances by players on the field.
But with Alberto, I’m just going to sit back and watch the Punch and Judy hitter do his thing.