I’ve thought and written quite a bit about Albert Almora, Jr. the last couple of offseasons, pondering his overall role and whether there was a long-term place for him in the Cubs’ outfield. A crowded group that came into the season featuring Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, and Ben Zobrist already, there were legitimate questions about whether Almora’s bat, which doesn’t possess quite the upside of the others, could get him regular plate appearances and allow him to serve as more than a late-game defensive sub for someone like Schwarber.
With the calendar just recently turning over into June, though, Almora has looked far more like someone worthy of the first round selection that the Cubs used to bring him in back in 2012, when he was selected sixth overall. Not only has he made a push for more playing time, he could be set to lock down that centerfield spot on a more permanent basis moving forward. He’s gradually evolved early in the season from role player to legitimate piece of a Cubs offense that is leading all of baseball in a number of ways.
Initially, the projected role for Almora was to play primarily against left-handed pitching. And he has absolutely continued being the lefty killer that we knew he could be based off of the way he finished 2017. But he has proven to hold his own in a much larger sample size against right-handed pitching, even if the numbers aren’t quite as strong against them. This paints a pretty picture:
There are some notable shortcomings against right-handed pitching, none of which come as a surprise. He’s doing a stellar job at not striking out against lefties, but hasn’t had the success against pitchers of the opposite handedness. The power also hasn’t been there against righties. Nonetheless, he’s still coming in as an above-average hitter against right-handed pitching. Overall, he’s posted a .285 TAv as well, which is about 20 points higher than he’s posted in each of the last two seasons in his big league time.
Many of Almora’s swing and contact trends against each handedness are relatively similar. He’s making close to the same amount of hard contact against each, with 29.8% against lefties and 30.6% against right-handers. He’s shown more of a willingness to go to the opposite field against right-handed pitching, with a 37.7% oppo rate that is exactly 12 points ahead of what he does against southpaws. In terms of plate discipline, one glaring area for Almora has been his susceptibility to hack at breaking pitches way outside of the strike zone against pitchers of the same handedness. If he can cut down on those swings-and-misses there, he has the ability to become an even more consistent player than he’s already demonstrated to this point.
With his high-swing tendencies (still swinging at a rate over 52%) and deficiencies against right-handed pitching, his success at the end of last year and early this year were largely the byproducts of Joe Maddon putting him in situations where he’s most likely to find offensive success. But as the season has worn on, he’s proven capable of holding his own against right-handers, while showcasing an increasingly confident presence at the plate. If he can continue this kind of output, wherein he mashes lefties and provides slightly above average production against right-handed pitching, then the Cubs absolutely have themselves a centerfielder worthy of everyday play out there. I think that’s one of the most important things about Almora as an offensive player. He doesn’t have to be great against righties. He just has to be average.
And none of this is to mention his fielding, which has seen a tremendous rebound after numbers didn’t especially favor that element of his game last year. His FRAA is up to 2.9 (after a -1.2 mark in 2017), and FanGraphs has him at a UZR/150 of 19.4. Fielding percentage isn’t an indicator of his ability in the outfield, but it’s 1.000. So he’s been as perfect as you can be. The highlight reel speaks for itself. And, as Tommy Meyers noted after Sunday’s game:
Watching Almora/Heyward communicate this year is night and day compared to last year. Last year it seemed like Al was tentative in the RCF gap, wanting to cede to the veteran gold glover. This year he’s much more assertive in that gap.
— FullCountTommy (@FullCountTommy) June 3, 2018
I really like the point he made here, because it really speaks to the confidence we’re seeing from Almora all over the field. There’s a comfort element in playing next to Jason Heyward consistently, and that’s translating to the assertiveness noted in the tweet. Which has likely helped the uptick in his performance in the field to result.
Confidence is really a key thing for Albert Almora here. It’s hard to gain footing when you’re a part-time player, especially when you have such little big league experience to speak of. Through his success against lefties, Almora was able to grasp a larger role and has seized it at just about every level. While there’s a bit of a BABIP concern (.380 to this point) that could end up resulting in a bit of a decline as the season wears on, it’s more likely that we’ll continue to see Maddon deploy Almora in the ways that will make him most successful. Right now, that’s a nearly everyday role. Against tougher right-handed pitching, we probably still won’t see him. But in just about every other matchup, there’s no reason that this guy should not be posting up in centerfield and nailing down the backend of the Cubs’ batting order on a near-daily basis. His growth is evident, and it’s been an absolute blast to watch.
Lead photo courtesy Noah K. Murray—USA Today Sports