The path to .300: strikeouts down, base hits up

Can a player with a career batting average of .192 coming into the 2019 season hit over .300? Can he do that if he was waived four times between the 2018 and 2019 seasons?

If that player is Hanser Alberto, he can. Alberto stunned a lot of people this year when he became the first Oriole to hit .300 or better since 2008. His making the team was a mild surprise since the Orioles designated him for assignment on Feb. 19 and re-signed him on March 1. By the way, Nick Markakis and Aubrey Huff both hit over .300 in 2008.

Alberto finished the season batting .305/.329/.422 with a .751 OPS. He had hit .192 in his career with Texas in 192 plate appearances over three previous seasons.

Among players in the majors with 500 or more PAs, Alberto had the best strikeout rate at 9.1 percent, ahead of the Angels’ David Fletcher at 9.8 and Houston’s Michael Brantley at 10.4.

Alberto-Swings-Black-Sidebar.jpgAlberto became the first Oriole since Deivi Cruz in 2003, and only the second since 1992, with at least 500 at-bats and 50 strikeouts or fewer, producing the 18th such season in Orioles history.

Eight different players have done this as an Oriole. Brooks Robinson heads the list, having done it seven times (1960, ‘65, ‘66, ‘71, ‘72, ‘73, ‘74). Luis Aparicio did so three times (‘63, ‘66, ‘67). Cal Ripken Jr. (‘91, ‘92) and Rich Dauer (‘80, ‘82) each did it twice. Recording one such season each were Cruz, Mark Belanger (1971) and Tommy Davis (1974).

Fewer strikeouts means more chances for the ball to be in play and more chances to make something happen.

In an interview in late June, Alberto explained to me his hitting approach. It sounded pretty simple, but he sure made it work.

“I look mostly fastball up to two strike,” he said. “Some days you are feeling different, and you can get a hanger and you feel good. But often I stay up there looking fastball up to two strikes. There are some pitchers that may throw curves in any count. You need to be ready for that, but most of the time I’m looking fastball.”

Among many impressive stats Alberto posted this season: He hit .440 with a 1-0 count, while the major league average was .351. Yep, be aggressive with fastballs early in the count. And the low strikeout total must have meant Alberto often put the ball in play on an 0-2 count. Well, he did better than just put the ball in play. Alberto hit .291 when the count was 0-2 this year. Pretty remarkable, since the major league average was .149.

In an interview late in the year with Alberto, we revisited his low strikeout rate. What he did this year in putting the ball in play often was really the norm for his career.

“It has just been forever like that,” he said. “I try to put the barrel on the ball and do that pretty often. That’s me. Always been like that. At times in the past, I tried to take more walks and I lose my aggressiveness a little bit. Then I go back to my natural form, being an aggressive hitter.

“Here in the big leagues, pitchers don’t make many mistakes. Sometimes you can get that pitch early in the count. Then I try to put a good swing on it. I don’t even hit many foul balls or swing and miss much. The ball always seems to go in play.”

And that impressed O’s skipper Brandon Hyde.

“I love the fact that Hanser puts the ball in play,” Hyde said. “Something that is not talked about very often anymore is the guy that has the ability to force action and to make defenders make a play. We are so used to strikeouts that I love the fact that Hanser does make it important to cover the plate and does make every effort to not try to lift or go deep with two strikes, but wants to put the ball in play. Think he’s seen a lot of hits because of that.”

Alberto’s .751 OPS this year produced an OPS plus of 98, just under the league average of 100. He hit for a high average but with few walks and little power. So he brings an element on offense, but it’s not the full package.

Still, at a time when strikeouts are escalating and many players struggle to put bat to ball, the Orioles have one who does that as well as anyone in the game.

The World Series is set: We saw an amazing end to the American League Championship Series. Both closers gave up homers in the ninth. DJ LeMahieu hit a two-run shot in the top of the ninth for a 4-4 tie. Jose Altuve’s two-run shot off Aroldis Chapman won it in the last of the ninth. It touched off a wild celebration at Minute Maid Park as Houston beat the New York Yankees 6-4.

To me, Houston has been the best team in the majors this year, and they truly have it all. But right now the Washington Nationals think they can do anything, and they’ll need that outlook come Tuesday. We should see Gerrit Cole face Max Scherzer in Game 1 and Justin Verlander against Stephen Strasburg in Game 2. Should be fun. I’ve got Houston winning it, but I think it will be harder than some may think.

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