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2021 Braves player review: Ozzie Albies

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Albies made an offensive tradeoff, but ended up in the same great place anyway

World Series - Atlanta Braves v Houston Astros - Game Six Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Ozzie Albies is a huge part of the current Atlanta Braves core. He evolved a bit in 2021, but the end result was pretty similar, and he remained a huge chunk of the team’s success.

Acquisition

The Braves signed Albies out of Curaçao on July 2, 2013, offering him $350,000 to add him to the organization. He had a quick ascent up the minor league ladder, as he dominated every rung aside from a mid-season move to Triple-A in 2016. The Braves called him up in late 2017, and he’s manned the keystone since. On April 11, 2019, the Braves signed him to arguably the most ridiculous contract in U.S. pro sports, as it pays Albies only $35 million, with two team options that can bring the total to $49 million, for seven years of his services, including two to four bought-out, would-be free agent seasons. The crazy deal made any concerns that the Braves threw away some service time by promoting him at the end of a meaningless 2017 season utterly moot.

Expectations and Projections

Up until the shortened 2020 campaign, Albies was consistently very good. His debut half-season saw him put up 1.8 fWAR in under 250 PAs, an fWAR/600 rate of over 4.4. He followed that up with 3.7 fWAR in his first full season, and then found another gear offensively in 2019, setting a career-high with a 116 wRC+ as well as 4.5 fWAR.

2020, though, was an annoying step back for the phenom, as he tried to play through a wrist problem early in the season, but eventually hit the shelf and missed over a month of action. He hit pretty much as well as expected when he returned, but the attempt to play through his injury tanked his line — Albies put up a 20 wRC+ and .238 xwOBA in his first 46 PAs of the season, but finished with a 151 wRC+ and a .335 xwOBA (which he outhit a ton) in the other 78 PAs. He then posted a 103 wRC+ / .360 xwOBA (severely underperformed) in the 2020 playoffs. As a result, there was no real reason to figure Albies would do anything too-different in 2021, given that his “down season” didn’t really exist. Steamer and ZiPS saw him as a 4ish-win player putting up around 3.5 WAR per 600 PAs, which makes a lot of sense given that, to date, Albies had put up 10.7 fWAR in about 2.5 seasons’ worth of playing time, and had a career 3.7 fWAR/600 mark.

2021 Results

How did Ozzie Albies finish his 2021 season? As expected, at the top line: 4.2 fWAR, and 3.7 fWAR/600. No real surprises, and there’s nothing to complain about when your 4 WAR guy gives you 4 WAR.

Albies’ 2021 season was basically a career composite. His 107 wRC+ matches his 108 career wRC+. His fielding metrics were a little worse than his career rate, but not necessarily outliers (except by DRS, which remains DRS), but he posted the best baserunning metrics of his career to balance it out.

More interesting, though, especially on the hitting side, is how he changed things up, but ended up in pretty much the same place. In short, the diminutive Albies aligned himself, fairly dramatically, to leaguewide trends in 2021. His fly ball rate shot up a ton, he posted a career high in average exit velocity and hard-hit rate, his barrel rate greatly increased over the rest of his career, and all of this happened because he did what the Braves have been doing for a few years now — swinging at things they think they can obliterate out of the ballpark, whiffs be damned.

Did this pay off? That depends on how you look at it. It certainly didn’t make anything worse. But, the gains in power output, which led to Albies setting a career high with 30 homers, led to an OBP drop that pretty much cancelled out the gains. Not a better or worse Albies, just a different one.

What went right? What went wrong?

It’s hard to say that most things didn’t go right when your 24-year-old second baseman put up more than 4 fWAR (tied for third on the team) en route to a World Series title. He was, fundamentally, very good, a top-40 position player in MLB, and just barely finishing outside the top five among those who played some second base. Slightly above-average hitting, decent defense, and best-in-class baserunning (he led all of MLB in BsR in 2021, and was top-six in each of the three baserunning components, including first at the part where you run around the bases on balls in play) is a heady concoction for any team to pour into its big ol’ cauldron-o’-success.

With that said, some things probably could’ve gone better. Albies’ career continues to intertwine with defensive metrics in confusing ways: he was great-to-elite in 2018 (+7, +13, +12), ran a gamut of values (-3, +2, +9) in 2019, and then was middling (+2, +1, +1) in 2021. This graphic from OAA, showing 2018, 2019, and 2021, is, suffice to say, very confusing!

The confusion may be more the result of the nature of defensive metrics, even OAA, than anything Albies is doing, but while it seems we can safely say that Albies is probably not a bad defender at this point, exactly where he is above that is murky.

Another thing that could’ve gone a lot better was Albies’ playoff performance. He hit much worse in the postseason in 2021, with a 71 wRC+ that can’t be blamed on xwOBA/wOBA shenanigans (.280 wOBA, .276 xwOBA). It’s hard to derive any real meaning from 69 PAs, but he probably wishes it went better all the same.

Road to the Title

As a result of the postseason slide, Albies put up negative WPA and cWPA in the postseason, in pretty substantial amounts; a cWPA of -9% is a bummer, especially in contrast to Albies’ pretty positive WPA and cWPA during the regular season. He did, at least, go out on top, as his highest-cWPA game of the year was the title-winning World Series Game 6. Albies went 2-for-3 with a walk in that one. He started the third with a single and eventually scored on Soler’s series-defining three-run homer. He led off the fifth with a walk and scored on Dansby Swanson’s dinger that made it 5-0. He singled in the sixth, and took Ryan Pressly on a ride to deep center in his final PA of the 2021 season.

That said, Albies gave the Braves one particularly epic moment that came in the regular season. This walkoff three-run homer, with two outs, was one of the biggest win expectancy swings of the 2021 season, worth over .800 WPA all on its lonesome:

People have pinpointed many different instances where they felt the Braves were “back” in 2021, such as the Joc Pederson acquisition or some point on the nine-game winning streak. I’m not saying it was definitely this moment for me, but it could have been — the nine-game winning streak and the ascent to the top of the division started two days after this walkoff blast.

Outlook for 2022

After a season that aligned to expectations, it’s a good bet that it’s more of the same for Albies here on out. Steamer has him in the 4-win range again for 2022, and why wouldn’t it? Maybe Albies tinkers with his profile again, maybe his defense swings wildly in some direction (or doesn’t), but either way, one of the league’s 50 best position players seems a solid guess.