If there was any player on the Orioles in line for a season to forget in 2020, Hanser Alberto seemed to fit the bill.
Nothing the 27-year-old did last year made sense. The career .192 hitter batted .305. He raked against left-handers. He never struck out, whiffing only 50 times in 524 at-bats after fanning 38 times in his previous 182. All of this from a player four franchises — including his current employer — gave up on.
Three of those instances occurred in the offseason and spring training before last year. The year he turned overnight into the quintessential contact hitter. Surely, he was due for a return to earth. Right?
Well, so far, it appears Alberto either didn’t hear that speculation or didn’t care for it. Entering Tuesday, he was sitting at a .429 average, with 13 hits in 35 at-bats through eight games, including two home runs. He’s been part of an Orioles infield that has taken to the COVID season with aplomb, as shortstop Jose Iglesias is hitting a team-high .471 and third baseman Rio Ruiz is batting .318 with three homers.
Those three, as well as catcher Pedro Severino, all have an OPS above 1.000. Unless Don Long is one hell of a hitting coach, those numbers are going to come down.
Alberto, however, is making it harder and harder to assume he’ll be in that camp.
His path to more success at the plate has had some of the features of the blueprint from last year, as well as some encouraging new trends. Alberto wore out lefties in 2019, hitting .398 against them versus only .238 against right-handers. So far this summer, Alberto has started hot against southpaws, getting five hits in eight at-bats, but he’s also been more of an equal opportunity offender with a .318 average against right-handed pitching.
He’s also proving again to be a good hitter on the road. Alberto batted .345 away from Camden Yards in 2019, and he’s started 6-for-12 on the road this season.
In other areas, however, Alberto is showing signs that he might be developing into a more well-rounded hitter. Last season, Alberto’s effectiveness was limited once he fell behind in the count, as he hit only .286 with a .634 OPS in those situations. This season, he’s been a tough hitter to finish off, with a .462 average (6-for-13) when behind in the count.
All of these stats come with the disclaimer of being a small sample size. But they’re a good sign, especially considering how difficult it was to find anyone before the season who believed he had a repeat of 2019 in him. Fangraph’s ZiPS projections had him hitting .280, and his OPS falling from .751 to .693. Baseball-Reference figured that, given a COVID-less season, he’d be hitting only .231 after 107 games at this point in the season.
Instead, Alberto has been showing that he might have found a way to carry over his success from last year into this summer, with some improvements in other areas as well.
It hasn’t just been in the batter’s box. As Nathan Ruiz of the Baltimore Sun pointed out, Alberto has taken more of a central role in cultivating the team’s chemistry and camaraderie. He’s a positive, cheerful, outgoing person and player, and manager Brandon Hyde said he’s helped keep things light and fun on the field for the Orioles and their younger, more impressionable players. It’s an important role, one the O’s needed filled after Jonathan Villar was traded, and Alberto seems naturally suited for the job.
But your enthusiasm and charisma can only go so far if you’re not performing on the field at the same time. Players will tune out the one who isn’t getting the job done.
That hasn’t been an issue for the Alberto. So far, he’s again looked like the real deal. Like the Orioles’ impressive start, we’ll see if it lasts. But it’s hard to find fault in the results so far.