At first glance, Ozzie Albies is right back in the swing of things. The Braves’ dynamic second base prospect hit .312 in June, made the Triple-A All-Star team, and looked to be on track to make his debut in the big leagues as soon as that opportunity comes.
But a look just beneath the surface — and inside the batting cages — there’s still a good bit of work to be done.
For a switch-hitter with high hopes of becoming the Braves’ second baseman and leadoff hitter of the future, expectations are significant, and for that reason, the Braves are working to help the diminutive catalyst from Curacao revamp his left-handed swing.
They called in likely future Hall of Fame switch-hitter Chipper Jones, now a special assistant to baseball operations for the Braves, to help do it.
“He (was) at a point where hitters do not want to be, and that is behind the fastball and out in front of the breaking ball,” Jones said of Albies after they first met up in the batting cages in early May.
During Albies’ first three years in the Braves’ minor league system he hit well above .300 at every level, so it was hard to find much fault. But Triple-A pitching revealed some problems from the left side.
Entering Saturday’s game in Charlotte, Albies was hitting .373 with a .402 on-base percentage in 83 at-bats from the right side, but only .244 with a .300 on-base percentage in 217 at-bats from the left side. And the averages from the left side have actually steadily improved over the past month.
Jones said he saw fundamental flaws in Albies’ left-handed swing, moving parts he could get away with from his natural right side, where he could generate better bat speed with a stronger top hand.
Jones started by spending an hour in the cage working with Albies on having a stronger base by staying centered over his back leg. He and the Braves have encouraged Albies to keep his front foot flat, rather than being up on his toes, and to start his hands behind his helmet instead of in front of his chest, as he does in his right-handed swing.
“When you cock the bat in front of your head it causes a loop, and that’s one of the reasons why he’s hitting the ball in the air so much and not hitting the ball on the ground to the left side,” Jones said. “If he were to start cocking around his head so the bat was actually behind his helmet when he started his swing, his bat plane would flatten out, and all of a sudden instead of his bat being in the zone for six or eight inches it would be in the zone for a foot and a half or two feet.”
Eventually the Braves want Albies to eliminate his leg kick from the left side altogether. But they know they can’t expect him to make all these adjustments at once.
“We’ve tried to get him to do about five different things,” said Gwinnett Braves hitting coach John Moses, who stays in regular contact with Jones. “It’s not easy changing in the course of a season, especially when you’re trying to revamp the whole left side basically, trying to get him to control things and understand why. He’s very intelligent. But sometimes guys that have been there before, he has to understand where we’re coming from. It’s a trust factor too.”
Albies and shortstop Dansby Swanson project to be the Braves’ middle infield of the future, and Albies’ transition from shortstop to second base toward that end has been smooth. But his offensive progression slowed from the left side at the Triple-A level, and that was hindered in part when he broke a bone in his elbow in the Double-A playoffs last year, which cost him time in the batting cage over the winter.
The Braves are quick to point out that Albies won’t turn 21 until January.
“I think he’s matured in ways where he’s more coachable,” Moses said. “If we were trying to do this last year or the year before last it wouldn’t have worked, I can tell you that right now. But now he’s more open.”
Jones keeps regular tabs on Albies. He gets daily emails containing video of each of Albies’ at-bats that he can watch on his iPhone. He calls or texts Moses every few days. But he leaves most of the communicating to Moses because they want Albies listening to one voice, not several.
They’d like to see his walk total and on-base percentage continue to climb and for Albies to work counts and hit the ball on the ground, going the other way, to take advantage of his speed.
The Braves wouldn’t push for these changes if they didn’t see the need for Albies at the big-league level — and soon.
Brandon Phillips has played a solid second base for the Braves and been a productive addition to the lineup, but he is in the final year of his contract, and whether the Braves decide to trade him at the July 31 deadline or let him play out his final season, the clock is ticking for Albies.
“There’s a place absolutely,” Moses said. “Whatever happens — you never know with the trade deadline or next year. I know that they want him to be the second baseman, and that’s a good thing because he’s talented. He just has to trust himself in some areas and take it out on the field and take it into the game.”
Albies was 9-for-24 (.375) in the first five games of this road trip to raise his season average to .280. He hit a pair of line drives for base hits from the left side Friday night, jumping on pitches early in the count.
“I’ve just got to keep working on it,” Albies said. “I know what I need to do. They’re trying to change my swing right now, so I’ve got to make adjustments every time.”