(Photo Credit: REUTERS/BRETT DAVIS)
Not much of anything the Atlanta Braves are doing right now can be called "expected." If the Miami Marlins didn't exist, they would likely have been pegged for the bottom of the National League East going into the season. Last year certainly convinced many people that their rebuild had hit a skid, with the Philadelphia Phillies taking a step ahead of them.
But the 2018 season has been one of surprise in the NL East. The Braves and Phillies are fighting each other for the division lead, and young players on both clubs are turning heads.
Perhaps the most whiplash-inducing of them all, though, has been Ozzie Albies. The 21-year-old second baseman hasn't exactly come out of nowhere. He was one of Atlanta's top prospects before he was called up last August. But what he's done this season—particularly when it comes to power—has people wondering where in the heck this outburst came from.
Whatever is spurring this tear he's on, if it continues this way he will be a front-runner for the NL MVP award come October.
Rise to the Show
Albies was signed by the Braves as an amateur free agent in 2013. He made his professional debut the next year at the Rookie level in the Gulf Coast and Appalachian leagues. After hitting .364 between the two stops, he started the next season at Class-A Rome. His rapid rise continued in 2016, starting in Double-A Mississippi but hitting a bump when he was promoted to Triple-A Gwinnett. He hit only .248/.307/.351 at the last hurdle, and when he was sent back to Gwinnett after spring training in 2017 there was, for once, no question of service time manipulation—he needed more seasoning.
He got that seasoning quickly, hitting .285/.330/.440. He drove in 41 runs and homered nine times, along with 21 doubles and eight triples. He homered six more times after his call-up for a combined 15, shattering his career high. That probably should have been a sign of what we're seeing now.
Albies has run over opposing pitching from the get-go this season. Entering play Wednesday, he's slashing .286/.329/.586. He's already only two home runs from setting his career high as a professional. He's sacrificed some of his on-base percentage—he got on base at a .354 clip in the majors last year—but his slugging percentage is over 120 points higher than it's been at any level, and he leads the majors in total bases with 119. When he has been getting on base, he's used those opportunities well. He also leads the league in runs scored with 45.
Albies' power surge has had some negative effects. He's already struck out more times than he did after he was called up last year—in 10 fewer games. His walk rate has also dropped to a career-low 5.5%. Those are ominous signs that there could be a drop-off if his hits stop falling.
But at the moment, there is no sign that they will stop. He hasn't gone more than seven games without homering this season and has only been held hitless two or more times in a row twice all year—and his longest streak of hitless games is only three.
If he keeps up this pace, there is no question that he will be a top candidate for the MVP—and potentially a key piece in a surprising Braves playoff run.