The Orioles’ breakout candidate appears to change every week.
For a while, Renato Nunez was the best pick. Then Dwight Smith Jr. swatted a few over the fence and the buzz switched to him. Pedro Severino has been that player as well at times.
These days, though, Hanser Alberto seems as good a choice as any.
The 26-year-old infielder has been a find for the Orioles thus far. He’s slotted in well at the leadoff spot, taking a .311 average — and a .375 mark when hitting first in the order — into Tuesday’s series opener with Toronto. It’s been line drive after line drive from the former Texas Ranger, and base hit after base hit.
Which is odd, because Alberto was nothing like this in his previous seasons in the majors. He came into this season hitting only .192 for his career, and his previous high was .222 in 99 at-bats in 2015.
So what’s happened? What’s allowed an apparent four-A player to transition into a table-setting standout?
Certainly, Alberto’s seen his production pick up in certain areas. His batting against lefties has improved remarkably; a .169 hitter against lefties entering this season, Alberto has raked to the tune of a .425 average this season. He’s also done a better job of avoiding strikeouts, registering only 19 punchouts through 183 at-bats this season after whiffing 38 times through 182 at-bats coming into the year.
This hasn’t been the result of a commitment to plate discipline, however. Alberto has hit like a leadoff hitter but hasn’t exactly approached the plate like one. He’s projected to bat 456 times, and — this is remarkable — draw only 10 walks. Even with a .311 batting average, Alberto’s on-base percentage is only .326.
Instead, it looks like the key to Alberto’s success has been the opposite: Going up to the plate and jumping on the first strike he sees.
The longer the at-bat goes with Alberto, the less likely he is to come through, which is an anomaly in a way given the conventional wisdom that the advantage shifts from the pitcher to a hitter as an at-bat plays out.
Alberto, however, has been at his best not when he’s working counts, but when he’s putting the ball in play early in the sequence. When his at-bat finishes within three pitches — that is to say, he hits either a first pitch, a 1-0 or 2-0 offering, a 1-1 offering or an 0-1 pitch (I’m excluding 0-2, because with foul balls that count could still be a lengthy at-bat) — Alberto is hitting .381 in 97 trips to the plate. He’s batting .412 when he puts the first strike in play.
Consequently, when the pitches have started to pile up, be they balls or strikes, Alberto’s performance is more pedestrian. After a 1-1 count, he’s down to .254. Even with three balls, commonly considered a hitter’s count, he hits at a .167 clip.
This isn’t necessarily a new approach — it’s just the outcomes that are different. Alberto had 93 of his 182 at-bats end within three pitches before this season, compared to the 97 in 183 this year. He hit .194 in those situations before 2019. What’s debatable is whether Alberto is being more aggressive this year than in years prior; what isn’t is that his aggressive mindset is working more this year.
And just why swinging early in the count has helped him this year is a mystery as well. Perhaps, being a lesser-known player coming in, Alberto has been seeing the kind of down-the-middle fastballs and get-me-over curveballs that pitchers know not to use on the more established leadoff hitters, and there will be a market adjustment as word of his tendencies gets out. Maybe in the weeks to come, Alberto sees pitchers use the start of his at-bats not to get ahead in the count, but goad him into an early swing.
Or perhaps, evidenced by his .331 BABIP, Alberto has just gotten fortunate with the placement of some of those batted balls, and he’ll begin to find more gloves as the year drags on.
Clearly, though, Alberto has found a mindset and approach that works for him, and the Orioles are the beneficiaries. Time will tell if they’ve found a hidden gem, or just another player having a few hot weeks.