Now that a full month has gone by, I’d like to address something interesting that’s been going on with one of the Cubs top prospects, Albert Almora.
But before we jump right into it, there’s some throat clearing to do upfront.
Namely, I’d like say upfront that we’re going to talk about this something interesting from a multitude of angles. I think it’s a fairly complicated phenomenon that can be taken as both good and bad thing, once all sides are considered. So before you go making up your mind one way or another, hear me out, and try to keep your mind open (and with the word “development” at the forefront). Okay, was that enough?
Albert Almora hasn’t taken a walk in one full, healthy, calendar month.
It’s hardly a secret that Almora hasn’t taken a walk, but before it got to this point, I didn’t really feel that it required our attention. But now that it’s been over 30 days (29 games) and 123 plate appearances, I’d say it’s something we need to talk about.
Not walking in 123 plate appearances – let alone having just 1 in your last 152 PAs – is not a source of pride. Any which way you cut it, most players would – and more importantly, should – have taken far more walks than the amount Almora has in any given stretch of baseball … even a greatly struggling player.
Of course, as we know, Albert Almora isn’t just any player and he hasn’t really been struggling. In fact, he’s quite different, quite special.
If you recall – and I’m sure you do – Almora has never been one to walk much. In fact, the largest walk rate he’s ever posted throughout his professional career (4.5 years long) was the 7.1% mark he put up last year in AA Tennessee. Of course, he’s never really struck out a lot, either. Again, in 4.5 years, the highest strikeout rate Almora has ever posted was 16.0%, when he made the jump to AA in 2014. In his second go-around at AA last year, that figure shrunk all the way back down to 10.4% (in over 450 PAs!).
Almora has always had truly special and unique bat-to-ball skills. In fact, his uncanny ability to make contact with anything that comes his way has often worked to his own detriment (not unlike the issues Starlin Castro faced at the Major League Level). Most of the reason his early career production was so low (especially in the power department), was because he failed to fully grasp the Cubs prescribed approach at the plate. Namely, a hitter needs to wait for his pitch and let everything else go by, even if it’s a strike (until there are two strikes). Instead, Almora would reach out and make contact on balls he should not have offered at, frequently resulting in poor contact. It was this problem that led to a first half slash line of .249/.294/.365 (just a .659 OPS) in 2015.
But then something changed.
At the end of last season, Almora says he began to fully grasp what the Cubs were asking of him. He admitted as much in an interview with Danny Wild (MLB.com) that I wrote about here. Take a look at what I had to say at the time:
The biggest take away, though, is Almora’s description of his new approach at the plate. For a while, Almora admits he thought simply taking more walks was the desired outcome/goal the Cubs were looking to see at the plate. He has since, however, come to understand that the real purpose of every at bat is simply waiting for his pitch – something he can drive – and letting everything else go by earlier in the count. The byproduct of that approach, according to Almora, in addition to driving more pitches, is more and more walks. (YES!)
Almora finally understood that the Cubs weren’t trying to get him to walk more, they were simply trying to improve his all-around offensive production by limiting his swings on bad pitches. Almora apparently took it very seriously, because in the second half of 2015 he looked like a different person, slashing .302/.370/.448 (.378 wOBA) with an 8.8% walk rate in just about 200 PAs. Everyone, including me, seemed to be especially thrilled with the walk rate which was by the far the highest of his career.
Which will bring us back to this season.
So far in 2016, Almora has had an absolutely brilliant start to his season at the plate. In 177 plate appearances at AAA Iowa (his first time at this level), Almora has put up the best offensive numbers of his career (.333/.352/.482). He still isn’t striking out (12.4%) and he already has three home runs. But is the minuscule walk rate (3.4%) going to be a problem? In short, no.
Don’t get me wrong, I stand by what I said at the beginning. Walking this infrequently is obviously less favorable than walking a lot more. There’s no arguing with that. But I’m also not so sure it’s the kiss-of-death that it might otherwise appear to be.
Almora is still implementing the Cubs’ approach at the plate. In fact, he’s doing it now better than he’s ever done before – at a the highest level he’s ever reached – in just his 22nd year of life. Had Almora stopped walking while also reverting back to his old habits of swinging at bad pitches, making weak contact and hitting for no power, then I’d be concerned. But in 2016, Almora is posting the best ISO (.149) he’s posted since Low-A and the best slugging percentage in his entire career (.482).
And he because he’s not a big-time power/home run threat (right now), he’s not going to be pitched around/walked as much as we were used to seeing in guys like Kyle Schwarber/Jorge Soler/Kris Bryant. Pitchers have just been challenging him more often and, for the most part, he’s made them pay.
When you don’t strike out and don’t walk a lot, but are hitting above .330 and slugging more than you ever have in your career, it’s likely in part because you are no longer being challenged. I’d argue that if Almora was promoted, his walk rate could actually increase, as he would be forced to lay off more well-placed pitches just out of the zone. He’d definitely see a decrease in his overall production, of course, but it’s becoming increasingly possible that he’s just ready for the next level.
It may feel like this moment would never come, given how long Almora has been in the system, but remember: he’s just 22 years old and was selected sixth overall as an 18-year-old by this current front office. I just don’t believe they would have selected him if they didn’t think he had this in him.
There’s still a little time yet before Almora is patrolling the outfield for the Chicago Cubs, but it’s coming soon, and the lack of walks may not hold him back as much as you might otherwise think.