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Hanser Alberto’s bizarre breakout season was a highlight for the 2019 Orioles

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All the underlying statistics say Hanser Alberto shouldn’t be having much success. Yet he was a hitting machine in his debut season in Baltimore.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Baltimore Orioles Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019 Orioles season will be remembered most for...well...not much. But amidst a dreadful 108-loss campaign, no Oriole was a more fascinating story than Hanser Alberto, a mystery wrapped in an enigma, a man whose 2019 performance was a tempest of contradictions.

He’s a 27-year-old journeyman who was waived four times last offseason — including by the Orioles — yet finished the season as a mainstay in the lineup.

He’s a player who was utterly unable to hit right-handed pitchers, yet challenged for the batting title well into September.

He’s a player who produced the third-highest OBP on the team, yet had the second-worst walk rate of any qualifying major leaguer.

He’s a player who was elite at getting hits and awful at getting extra-base hits; who was terrible at laying off bad pitches yet gifted at making contact with them.

He’s the Schrodinger’s cat of baseball players. He is equal parts terrific and terrible; extremely valuable and utterly replaceable.

He is Hanser Alberto. And he’s one of a kind.

Alberto’s arrival in Baltimore less than a year ago met with little fanfare. The O’s initially claimed him off waivers Jan. 11 from the Yankees, who themselves had claimed him from the Rangers. Texas signed Alberto as an amateur free agent from the Dominican Republic in 2009, and he played in 89 games over parts of three seasons with the Rangers, batting just .192 with a .440 OPS. His 192 major league plate appearances included only six extra-base hits (none of them homers) and four walks.

With such pedestrian numbers, it’s no wonder so many teams were willing to expose Alberto to the waiver wire. The Orioles were no exception, letting Alberto get claimed by the Giants in February.

Something about Alberto, though, kept him firmly etched into the Orioles’ minds. Perhaps it was his impressive 2018 season at Triple-A Round Rock, in which Alberto batted .330 with a .797 OPS in 101 games, albeit in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. Alberto clearly had some offensive potential, and combined with his versatility — he’d played at least 30 games apiece at second base, third base, and shortstop in the minors — the Mike Elias regime figured he had a chance to be useful. When the Giants floated Alberto onto the waiver wire again in March, the O’s snatched him back up.

Alberto cracked the Opening Day roster but started only one of the Orioles’ first seven regular season games. Still, he made the most of his opportunities. He collected a base knock in each of his first seven games with a plate appearance, earning him more playing in Brandon Hyde’s lineups. Alberto platooned at third base with lefty-swinging Rio Ruiz. He also became a regular presence at second base (with Jonathan Villar shifting to short), siphoning at-bats away from struggling rookie Richie Martin.

Along the way, all he did was hit. With a 3-for-4 game to finish April, Alberto ended the month with a .324 average. The caveat, though, was that he carried just a .338 OBP — having drawn only two walks — and a .380 SLG, considering all but one of his 23 hits were singles.

Those trends continued all year long. If you needed a single, Hanser was your man. The slap-hitting wunderkind could make contact like nobody’s business — striking out just 9.1 percent of the time, ranking in the top 1 percent of the majors — and had an uncanny knack for putting the ball in play at exactly the spot that no fielder could get to.

He did this even though his average exit velocity (82.8 mph), hard hit percentage (18.3), and walk percentage (2.9) each ranked in the bottom 1 percent of the league. In August, our Andrea SK crunched the numbers behind Alberto’s utterly unusual season. In short, Alberto’s ability to stroke hit after hit, despite swinging at everything and hitting the ball so softly, was profoundly weird. But also kind of endearing!

Alberto, who had never collected more than three hits in an MLB game before this season, accomplished the feat five times in 2019, including a career-best 5-for-6 performance Aug. 30. After that game, Alberto’s batting average stood at .324, putting him within spitting distance of the AL batting title. Alberto, though, fell off the pace in late September, finishing with a .305 average. (Tim Anderson of the White Sox led the majors with a .335 mark.)

If Alberto had gotten to hit exclusively against lefties, he would’ve run away with the title. He batted an incredible .398 against left-handers, the best in the majors of any hitter with 175 or more plate appearances. His 88 hits off southpaws were the most in the majors since Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn’s 90 in 1987. Against righties, sadly, it was a very different story; Alberto batted just .238 with a .609 OPS.

On defense, Alberto was a positive contributor, especially at second base, where his 5 Defensive Runs Saved were the best of any Oriole at a single position. He didn’t fare so well at third base, with a -2 DRS. The versatile Alberto also started a game apiece in left field and right field and even made a pitching appearance, giving up two runs in one inning to the Yankees on April 7. Interestingly, Alberto didn’t play a single inning at shortstop for the Orioles, despite that being far and away his most played position in the minors.

Alberto is arbitration-eligible for the first time, and should see a modest bump from his $578,000 salary of 2019. He’s penciled in for regular playing time in 2020, much of which could be at second base, with Villar at short and Martin starting the season in the minors. Alberto also could spell Ruiz at third base against lefties.

As for what the O’s can expect from Alberto offensively next season, it’s anybody’s guess. The underlying exit velocity numbers, poor OBP skills, and struggles against righties would seem to portend a regression.

But this is Hanser Alberto. If anybody can make this bizarre combination of skills work to perfection, it’s him.