Ozzie Albies made solid contact on a couple of pitches during his final found of batting practice Tuesday, then walked out of the batting cage, sauntered over to a reporter and said, “I’m ready.”
Two days into full-squad workouts, the 21-year-old second baseman with the bulging biceps was brimming with confidence.
So much has changed in one year for Albies, the diminutive but dynamic switch-hitter from Curacao. He came to spring training a year ago with physical restrictions and with lingering concerns about his elbow, at least in the minds of some observers.
But he put to rest any questions about his health during the minor league season last year, then bashed away at any doubters about big-league readiness after getting called up Aug. 1. He showed why the Braves remained so bullish on him even after his freakish elbow injury -- he broke it taking a normal swing -- in September 2016.
Albies hit .286 with a .354 OBP, .810 OPS, six homers, 28 RBIs and eight stolen bases in 57 games for the Braves, all starts at second base after his arrival from Triple-A displaced veteran Brandon Phillips.
A year later, Albies doesn’t have to field any questions about health or wonder when he’ll be cleared for full baseball activities, which was the case at the start of 2017 spring training. He spent this offseason resting for a bit, then working out to get ready for his first full season in the big leagues.
“It was a great offseason,” said Albies, who took a brief rest, a vacation that didn’t involve traveling anywhere because, well, he lives on an island paradise.
Then he got back to work.
“The normal offseason was good. I got myself strong,” he said. “Got away from baseball for a little bit. Now my mind is all about baseball until October, November.”
He’s just 5-foot-8 but shredded, with arms and legs that are comic-book muscular. If there is body fat on him, it is not visible.
“I feel so good,” he said. “I want to have a better season this year than last year. Just keep my approach the same and make things happen. Just see the ball and put the barrel on it, and just use my speed.”
Braves manager Brian Snitker said, “I talked to him about how good he must feel having a normal offseason, because he rehabbed the whole (offseason) a year ago.”
As solid as Albies’ statistics with the Braves were last season, they weren’t an indication of how impressive he was after the first 2-1/2 weeks.
After hitting only .179 (10-for-56) with four extra-base hits and a .569 OPS in his first 16 games, Albies silenced skeptics by hitting .323 with 16 extra-base hits (four triples, four homers) and an .892 OPS in 41 games the rest of the season and stealing seven bases in that span.
His pace over his last 41 games would yield 206 hits, 16 triples, 16 homers and 28 stolen bases in 162 games. And he did it while playing solid, sometimes-spectacular defense.
“When he got called up, the adjustments he made, how well he played second -- he slowed the game down there,” Snitker said. “He’s a rangy kid with a usable arm. He’s come a long way from a year ago.”
Former Braves slugger Chipper Jones, now a special assistant, worked with Albies at Triple-A last season, specifically on his hitting from the left side of the plate.
Once Albies got to the big leagues, he continued making adjustments during daily early work with hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, who praised the kid for listening, working hard and being willing to make changes, something that some players – whether rookies or veterans -- are reluctant to do at midseason.
Batting right-handed, Albies hit .327 with a .407 OBP and .519 slugging percentage (.926 OPS) and had five extra-base hits (two homers) in 60 plate appearances. In 184 PAs from the left side, he hit .273 with a .337 OBP, .773 OPS and 15 extra-base hits (four triples, four homers).
Albies hit .295 with a .364 OBP in 26 games batting in the second spot in the lineup, which is where Snitker is planning to keep him to start the 2018 season, hitting between Ender Inciarte and Freddie Freeman.
The Braves have mentioned having Albies take some ground balls at shortstop, his former position, just in case he’s needed there at any point. But there is no plan to have him switch positions.
“I think Ozzie is where he needs to be at second base; I think the glove plays at second base,” said Jones, an all-time great switch-hitter who likes Albies’ progress in that part of his game. “His right-handed swing plays. His left-handed side is his weak side, he’s going to have to continue to develop that just as it was with myself at 19 or 20 years old. Every day you come to the park you’re taking twice as many swings as you do on your weak side as you do from your strong side, and eventually it’ll take hold. But he’s got a wealth of talent.
“He’s a rarity because he’s a little guy, but he ain’t up there trying to slap no singles. Sometimes it infuriates you, hitting at the time of the lineup. But then he gets hot and he starts throwing doubles, triples and homers out there, with his speed he can do some things to help be a catalyst hitting especially at the top of the lineup in front of Freddie.”