In the 9th inning last night, Albert Almora Jr. stepped to the plate with nobody out, two runners on base, with the top of the order just behind him, and and the Cubs down a trio of runs. Almora represented the tying run, and Brewers closer Neftali Feliz had just walked Willson Contreras, looking very wild in the process.
As for Almora, he’d already doubled in a couple runs in the game, and he’d come up in a big spot this time around: after Contreras walked ahead of him, the Cubs’ win expectancy crept up to just over 18% in that moment for Almora. Not a huge number, but, hey, when you enter the final inning down three, that’s a pretty nice number.
After Almora was in an advantageous 2-0 count against Feliz, who has having a terrible time throwing strikes, Almora fouled a couple off, and then grounded into a double play to third base.
What’s tough in that situation is that you don’t really want a batter up there planning to take. When a pitcher is missing the zone and is in a must-throw-a-strike mode, you want almost all batters picking a specific pitch type and a specific spot in the strike zone. If the pitch isn’t there, you spit on it. If it is there, however, you give it a rip, regardless of the pitches that came before it.
On principle, then, I don’t have an issue with Almora’s swings in the 9th, even if – as a fan – I was shouting “take until he proves he can throw a strike!”
The execution, though, is what was disappointing. Against a pitcher with an upper-90s fastball, the zone you definitely don’t want to target for hitter’s count swings is the very top of the strike zone or slightly above it. You’re just not going to do anything with pitches like that.
Unfortunately for Almora, that’s where pitches three and four in the at bat came – the two foul balls above the strike zone in Feliz’s extremely wild chart were Almora’s strikes one and two (via Brooks):
Even the ball Almora put into play was right there on the edge of the inside zone, where taken a pitch for a ball earlier in the at bat. If he does take those three pitches, are all three called strikes? Probably not. Maybe Almora winds up walking, which would have loaded the bases with nobody out for Kyle Schwarber. Maybe the entire trajectory of the game is altered.
So, then, am I here to dump on Almora? Of course not. Not only is he young and still learning, and not only is aggressive contact a part of his game that will probably always remain at some level, it was just one at bat. A high-leverage, important at bat, to be sure, but just one at bat. If you dump on a baseball player for a single at bat, you’re doing it wrong. After all, it was Almora’s earlier double in the game that actually put the Cubs in a position to even have a chance come the 9th inning in the first place.
Instead, I offer last night’s moment only as (1) a big one in the game, featuring some stuff worth dissecting, and (2) an example of the growth we can still see in the future from Almora.
To that end, Rian Watt wrote an extremely timely piece on Almora’s plate discipline before last night’s game, underscoring Almora’s need to convince opposing pitchers that, yes, he will take a walk if they stay out of the zone.
So far this season, Almora is seeing pitches in the strike zone just 41.9% of the time, lower than the league average of 44.5%.
We’ve talked about it before: Almora extreme contact ability is a blessing and a curse. It’s good, of course, because contact is good. It’s not so good because savvy, advanced pitchers take advantage of that ability by offering pitches that are just close enough that Almora can hit them, but not meatbally enough that he can truly drive them. You can make a nice career living on contact and punishing mistakes, but it’s even better if you can polish up the discipline, draw more walks, and get even more pitches to drive when working those hitter’s counts.
It didn’t happen for Almora in the 9th inning last night – and, true to form, it’s not like he swung and missed – but the process is ongoing. And you don’t bet against elite talent.
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