Hanser Alberto was coming off of a breakout season, the kind any young player looks for. And the kind that makes you wonder just how legit the player is.
In 2020, Alberto provided reason to believe he’s no flash in the pan.
Alberto was following up a year in which he batted .305, smacked 160 hits and was ridiculously good (.398 average) against left-handed pitching. Considering this came after he batted .192 over 182 at-bats in three previous seasons, there was reason to believe that Alberto was going to come back to earth — hard — this season.
Instead, even if his stats weren’t quite as robust, Alberto showed he was closer to his 2019 form than the pessimists out there were fearing. Alberto hit .283 in 54 games and 219 at-bats — a 657 at-bat pace over 162 games — with a .306 on-base percentage. He again raked off lefties, batting .375. He showed little power, with three home runs and a .698 OPS, but that’s never been part of the skill-set.
It was another encouraging season for a player the Orioles had essentially fall into their laps. Alberto early in his career had the makings of a career four-A player, one who hit .330 at Triple-A Round Rock in the Rangers organization in 2018 but who had managed in the majors to hit only .222 in 2015, .143 in 2016 and .185 in 2018. After 2018 he was let go by the Rangers and bounced from the Yankees to the Orioles to the Giants, and then back to the Orioles for the start of 2019.
Since then, he’s become an everyday player at second or third base for the Orioles (second base this season), finishing eighth in the American League in batting average in 2019, and then 10th in the AL in hits this year. After finishing fourth in the AL in singles last year, he was sixth in that category this year.
Alberto’s year at the plate, from an approach standpoint, was pretty much the same. He again pretty much refused to walk, drawing only five free passes in 54 games after walking only 16 times last season. A total of 43.7 percent of his at-bats in 2019 lasted only one or two pitches — i.e. he put the ball in play on either the first pitch, a 1-0 count or an 0-1 count — while 41.5 percent of his at-bats went that way in 2020.
(For comparison’s sake, Anthony Santander was at 28.1 percent this season. Jose Iglesias, who walked only three times this season and just 20 times in 530 at-bats in 2019, was at 26.7.)
Oddly enough, even though his overall average dipped while embracing the same free-swinging approach, his performance early in the count improved. When hitting either the first or second pitch of the at-bat, Alberto hit .332 in 2019. In 2020, being aggressive paid off in a big way, to the tune of a .395 average on an 0-1 count, 1-0 count or the first pitch.
Another similarity between the 2019 Alberto and the 2020 Alberto is one the 2021 Alberto needs to work on. Alberto struggled to get to the finish line again this season, posting a .215 September that saw him fall from .321 to his end point of .283. It was the same story in 2019; he was hitting .321 (yet another similarity!) and flirting with one of the most unlikely batting titles in recent memory, but a .237 September dropped him to a still impressive .305.
It’s an area Alberto needs to get better at, because the hope is that he’ll be around the next couple of years, and perhaps even when the Orioles start winning some games again. Alberto is 28, having turned it 11 days ago, and not scheduled to become a free agent until 2023. He will, however, be arbitration eligible this season, and can expect a raise from his $1.65 million salary given his progression into one of the American League’s best contact hitters.
Whether the Orioles will reach a deal or try to capitalize on Alberto’s bumped-up trade value probably depends on how Mike Elias views this offseason. Last year, the rebuild was still in full swing, which was why Jonathan Villar ended up in Miami. Now, whether it’s because the Orioles were more competitive than expected over the course of the year, or because the bumper crop of talent is starting to crack the surface of the major leagues, Elias might want to hold onto some assets he would have otherwise dealt.
If Alberto is still in Baltimore for 2021, however, fans should feel a lot more confident about his performance than they did a season ago.