There’s more than one way to enjoy baseball. That much is clear, even when it comes to the 2019 Orioles. Maybe you’re looking for incremental improvement among anyone on the roster. Maybe you’re rooting for them to lose and lock up another No. 1 draft pick. Maybe you’re hoping players increase their trade value for the upcoming deadline. Or maybe you’re hoping for a combination of all of these — or you don’t care because you just love baseball.
I’ve been able to compartmentalize my Orioles fandom, or at least convince myself that I’ve done so. But I’ve never been able to openly root for them to lose, and I may never be able to. I get why people do it, especially during a rebuild. But even in this difficult but still hopeful time, I can’t convince myself that any player having an unexpectedly positive season is a trade chip. Some players are just nice surprises at times, and that’s fine.
One of those players appears to be infielder Hanser Alberto. Signed by the Texas Rangers all the way back in 2009, Alberto took a circuitous route before finally settling in with the Orioles this spring. In November, he was claimed off waivers by the New York Yankees, who then designated him for assignment in January. The O’s jumped in and claimed him, only to DFA him themselves about a month later. The San Francisco Giants claimed Alberto off waivers from the O’s a few days later, but then on March 1, the O’s claimed him once again.
Not only did Alberto make the Orioles’ opening day roster, but he’s been a lineup mainstay. He’s appeared in the fifth-most games on the team and is tied for the fourth-most plate appearances. The majority of his time has been split between second base and third base, but he’s managed to appear briefly in left and right field as well. And, surprisingly, he’s currently tied for third among all O’s position players in FanGraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement (1.0).
In short, Alberto marches to the beat of his own drum. His .309 batting average is 11th best among all qualified hitters, but his .327 on-base percentage is 94th best. That’s because he rarely walks: His 2.3 walk percentage is the lowest in the game. But he doesn’t strike out much either; his 9.7 strikeout percentage is the second lowest among qualified hitters. Only four hitters have swung more often than Alberto this season, and he’s in the top 17 when it comes to making contact.
Alberto pairs not striking out much with a .280 expected batting average, a Statcast metric that measures the likelihood that a batted ball will become a hit. Unfortunately, many of those hits are singles, and Alberto rates poorly in average exit velocity, hard-hit percentage and expected wOBA.
That doesn’t paint the most promising of offensive profiles, but here’s something fun: Alberto has worn out left-handed pitching. Here are his splits against right- and left-handed pitchers this season:
vs. RHP: .242/.270/.316, 53 wRC+ (202 PA)
vs. LHP: .401/.410/.526, 149 wRC+ (139 PA)
His 149 wRC+ against southpaws is tied for 25th among all qualified hitters. His batting average is first, though, which is pretty neat but doesn’t really tell you a whole lot about a player’s production. Still, it’s Hanser Alberto, and it’s amusing.
Now here comes the transition that’s in nearly every article on a surprising player: can he keep this up? The short, most realistic answer is probably not. At least, not like this. A player doesn’t have to follow the typical path of being patient at the plate, walking more and elevating his on-base percentage. But if he doesn’t, he’ll have to hit for power. Is that something Alberto has in him? Of his 101 hits this season, 83 have been singles. It’s one thing to post a batting average above .300. It’s another to barely walk while doing so and then not really knock the ball around the ballpark.
So the current version of Alberto isn’t incredibly valuable. But besides his current limited offensive upside, he does possess helpful qualities. He has average speed and is adequate on the basepaths. He’s played often at second and third base this season and provided average-ish defense there. Considering how he bounced around before the season, he’s exceeded expectations.
And … he’s a lot of fun. On a team that’s as miserable as the Orioles, that’s been a nice treat for fans. A couple weeks ago against the Washington Nationals, he hit a home run, but on his trot around first base he went back to touch the bag, just to make sure. He also did that the day before his second daughter was born.
Just a few days before that, Alberto broke up the Tampa Bay Rays’ combined perfect game attempt with a ninth-inning single. If that wasn’t impressive enough, his father had just arrived in the eighth inning after his trip from the Dominican Republic. That must have been an incredible moment for their family.
Alberto is hitting well enough, he’s playing all around the diamond (including one inning on the mound early in the season) and he’s enjoying himself:
When Buck Showalter was the Orioles’ manager, he used to frequently mention the O’s ability to “out-opportunity” other teams. It wasn’t always mentioned in the most positive light; there was some method behind Dan Duquette’s roster madness — shuffling players in and out to try and gain some inexpensive value on the fringes of the roster — but it could be exhausting and didn’t always work.
But with this current rebuilding club under the direction of executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde, there really is no excuse not to give players like Alberto a shot and see what happens. With playing time up for grabs, the O’s have seen some interesting performances from Alberto, Renato Nunez, Anthony Santander and Pedro Severino. John Means is at the top of the list for the pitching staff, but Asher Wojciechowski is trying to make a name for himself as well.
Whether guys like Alberto and Severino are trade chips depends on your definition of what a trade chip is. Is it a player who could simply be dealt for anything at all? Or is it a player who could be moved for something that a team would truly covet? Almost any team could have acquired Alberto just a few months ago, and now he’s putting up decent but certainly not great numbers. He could help another team, particularly as an infield platoon bat. But what would be the motivation to move him?
Alberto represents what the Orioles need in this moment: Someone who isn’t blocking a prospect, who plays hard, who’s fun and who’s likely a bridge to what’s next. And if he keeps surprising and getting better in the process, all the better. We could all use more Hanser Albertos in our lives.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox