He spent six years in the minors before getting a cup of coffee. Over nine years in the Rangers organization, he hit .210 while appearing in exactly 89 games. He’s been cut by four different teams—this year. (That includes the Orioles, who DFA’d him on February 19 to make room on the 40-man roster for Andrew Susac, then picked him back up on March 1.) He’s a utility infielder who plays particularly well nowhere on the diamond.
Alberto is the most undistinguished lineup standout on a team that makes undistinguished its calling card. And he’s proven himself an invaluable asset.
The guy is a consistent singles-hitting machine, and he’s extremely hard to strike out. Without him, the Orioles would have been no-hit by Tampa Bay on July 14th. Alberto may not be skilled with the glove, but he’s versatile, having appeared everywhere on the diamond this season besides shortstop, first, and catcher. You may have heard about his insane splits: .255 against righties, which is about league average, .404 versus lefties, tops in the league, over 161 PAs. (How he’s doing this, we don’t know. Every time he’s asked on the sidelines why he’s so good against lefties, he devolves into Nuke LaLoosh-“I’m just looking for a good pitch to hit”-type generalities…)
Even as he’s played himself into an everyday spot, Alberto still manages to be something of a punchline. His swing is utilitarian, occasionally downright ugly. His exit velocity ranks in the bottom 2% of the league. On June 18, our own Nick Cicere had this to say about Hanser, who was hitting .312 at the time:
Have the Orioles, now unequivocally the worst team in all of Major League Baseball, played at such an astonishingly low level for so long that I’m forcing myself to heat check Hanser Alberto?
The answer is yes, they have, though they’re technically no longer the worst. But a month later, that Alberto batting average has gone up, to .318, good for fifth in the AL. Alberto also happens to be fourth in singles and second in at-bats per strikeout (a list that features the likes of Yuli Gurriel, Michael Brantley, Alex Bregman, Eddie Rosario, and DJ LeMahieu. So it’s a good list). The badness of the Orioles aside, Alberto’s out-of-nowhere, unexpectedly consistent performance this season still makes him worth singling out. (Get it?)
His offense does profile a bit weird—all singles, a strikingly low OBP given his average because he never walks (.340 to .318), a pedestrian slugging percentage, and that incredibly low exit velocity. He swings at basically anything. His BABIP is high (.338) and his expected batting average (XBA) is pretty low (.288).
So how odd a hitter is Alberto, really?
Actually, pretty odd. BaseballSavant has this cool feature, a hitting affinity chart that shows you a little Alberto as the hub of the wheel, and a number of other similarly profiling hitters around him as the spokes. The truth is, statistically the similarity isn’t great, even on a simple mental association test (c.f. Alberto with his .318/.340/.767 line with Melky Cabrera, at .289/.321/.739; Miguel Rojas, .289/.344/.728; or Josh Reddick, .268/.309/699). I don’t see it.
Compared to the major league average, Alberto’s rates for plate appearances ending in a strikeout or a walk are comically low. Major leaguers this year are striking out an astonishing 21.6% of their PAs; Alberto’s is the lowest of his career at 9.9. Major league hitters walk 8.3% of time; Alberto gets a free pass more like 3 times out of a hundred.
The same is true of extra-base hits. While 8.1% of professional plate appearances this year end with an extra-base hit, for Alberto it’s 6.3. As said already, Alberto’s average exit velocity of 83.1 is in the bottom 2% of the league or 17th-worst. That, for reference, is Alejandro de Aza/Craig Gentry c. 2017 territory.
To put Alberto’s season into context, I checked out season totals for a couple of comparable slap hitters (defined, statistically, as those with a very low ISO. Alberto’s this year is a puny .109). Dee Gordon, who put together a great season in 2015, going .333/.359/.776/.085 ISO with a ridiculous .383 BABIP, also clocked in that year with a lowly 81.5 mph average exit velocity. Ichiro’s last very good season was in 2016, where he hit .291/.354/.730 with an AEV of 83.7 and a BABIP of .329. In 2018, José Altuve hit .316/.386/.837/.135 ISO with a .352 BABIP and an average-to-low 86.3 AEV. This doesn’t prove much, but it does show that “regression to the mean” doesn’t need to happen over the course of a season. Alberto could conceivably sustain this.
In short, Alberto is a weak contact machine. This does somewhat limit his offensive impact. Other than batting average, Alberto doesn’t even lead the Orioles in any major hitting categories—not bWAR, not wRC, not even total hits.
But Alberto’s magical ride this season continues to defy predictions of an imminent dropoff. It still hasn’t happened yet. It’s certainly the Orioles’ lack of depth that allowed them to sign and keep Alberto this season, but I’d say that’s turned out kind of well. Alberto is a rough-around-the-edges player, irrepressibly chatty, mistake-prone, improvisational in his technique, instinctive. In our launch-angle happy era, Alberto’s game is an oddity, and in context, it keeps getting odder and odder. It’s one of the things that keeps me watching the Orioles during this throwaway season, and one of the things that makes this game so great.