LOS ANGELES – Every player goes through slumps, they’re just more noticeable when the player in question, Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies, goes from career-best surge into a rough patch with little or no middle ground between the two periods.
And when that player is in his first full season in the majors it can be trickier to extricate himself from a slump, not from lack of trying but rather from trying too hard.
Albies, 21, began the season as the youngest player in the majors and played like a leading MVP candidate for nearly two months, batting .286 with 15 doubles, two triples, 14 homers, 34 RBIs and a .915 OPS in 47 games through May 22.
In his past 16 games before Saturday he was 12-for-69 (.174) with four doubles, no homers, one RBI and a .462 OPS.
“You’re going to go through ups and downs as a young player, and even as a veteran guy,” said Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, the National League leader in OBP (.430) and OPS (.990) and a player who has learned through the years how to shorten the length of his slumps. “Ozzie knows what he can do and he knows he’s going to come out of it. I think when you start having so much success you want to keep that success going, and sometimes you can put a little too much pressure on yourself. I definitely did when I was younger. I wanted to be the guy that they could count on me early on.
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“Sometimes it just gets ahead of you and you’ve just got to calm down. For me it was always taking a walk – tough AB, seeing all the pitches. Ozzie’s a free swinger; we all know that. But sometimes, when you’re young, just take that step back and take a walk; it gets you locked in. Right now maybe a broken-bat hit. It’s just a confidence thing. But we have all the confidence in the world in him, we know how special he is. He’s a special player that doesn’t come around very often.”
It’s a testament to just how hot Albies was earlier in the season that he remained the NL leader with 35 extra-base hits before Saturday, four above the league’s next-highest total (Freeman’s 31). He also led the league with 51 runs scored, was the team leader with 14 homers – tied for third in the league before Saturday – and was tied with Freeman and San Diego’s Eric Hosmer for the league doubles lead with 19.
“You look up and he’s got 50-something runs scored, he’s second or third in home runs. ... He’s still having a great year,” Freeman said. “That’s the thing, every year you’re going to go through peaks and valleys. You’ve just got to keep that low one as short as possible. I’m going to go through it, Nick’s (Markakis) going to go through it – we’re all going to go down at some point.
“When you get older you can figure out how to shorten (slumps). Get that line drive to left to get you back locked in, or for me it’s, they’re shifting me so much that I can jam a ball and get a hit and it gets you out of things. That’s the thing as you get older, you learn how to try to shorten (slumps). Sometimes you can’t shorten it, you’ve got to go through it.
“Ozzie’s obviously not playing the way he played in the beginning, but he goes up there and you still think he’s going to get a hit or a home run every single time. That’s just how you feel, and that’s the confidence that we have in him.”
The first three-plus weeks of the season featured almost unimaginably robust production from Albies, who hit .313 (26-for-83) with 16 extra-base hits (six homers), a .352 OBP and .663 slugging percentage in that torrid stretch, with three game-winning RBIs and seven go-ahead RBIs to lead the Braves to an 11-8 record. As for expectations, he set the bar at an unreasonable height with that blistering start.
“That was dumb of him to do that, huh?” Freeman said, laughing. Then the Braves slugger turned serious again in discussing Albies, who hit either first (30 games) or second (33 games) in every Braves game before Saturday, with Freeman in the third spot every game.
“We know he’s going to get right back on it. We know he’s been killing lefties, so maybe tonight’s the night where he gets going again,” Freeman said before facing former Braves lefty Alex Wood starting for the Dodgers Saturday. “That’s what we need. The guys at the top of the lineup set the tone for me and Nick and Zuke (Kurt Suzuki) and Flow (Tyler Flowers). So once they go, we go.
“It’s really hard to get going with two outs all the time, so once Ozzie gets going we’re going to get going too. It’s easier to move the line when the first guy’s moving the line. When I get a hit and Nick gets a hit (to start a potential rally), we’re on first and third and we’ve still got to get going with two outs.”
Braves manager Brian Snitker has seen Albies press too hard at times, but also think he’s realized he needs to make adjustments rather than just try to bear down, swing hard and hit his way out of a slump.
“I think he’s learning, I think it’s all part of the process,” Snitker said. “Making mental adjustments is just as important in this game as the physical adjustments, as teams plan for you. He’s not bursting on the scene anymore (and surprising teams). Everybody’s aware of this guy.
“Guys have a tendency to want to go up and get hits. You start trying to get hits, you forget about trying to hit the ball. But it’s something he’ll go through and be all the better for it. You know they’re going to do that (struggle at some point); very few of them come up and just don’t have that. And in today’s game it’s even more prevalent with the scouting. They put the player where you’re going to hit it. And a kid like that, you look up and he’s top 10 in everything. ...
“I’ve seen him make adjustments before and he’ll do it again and be fine. I think it’s just kind of that whole mental process. They’re human; they want to be good. You don’t figure out how to go through it until you go through it. They try to do too much. It happens. You want to do too much with every pitch that’s thrown instead of staying with your approach. They’ll try to get a hit with every ball that’s thrown, then you kind of expand your zone and end up hitting with two strikes all the time.”