Over the weekend, Albert Almora racked up four hits against the Cardinals and continued a blisteringly hot stretch here in the second-half of the season.
Since August 1, Almora has slashed .349/.364/.535 with a solid .186 ISO, (five doubles, a triple, and three homers) and a massive 25 RBI.
He’s not walking much at all during that stretch (2.3%), but given how much contact he’s making (and the quality of that contact), it’s not hard to be impressed with what he’s doing (especially at just 23 years old and with that Gold Glove caliber defense in center field (assuming this year’s defensive metrics are not capturing the whole picture)).
But are the Cubs interested in finding him more playing time right now? Maybe. Maybe not.
At CSN Chicago, Tony Andracki writes about the Cubs’ plans for Almora, noting Joe Maddon’s suggestions that the Cubs aren’t necessarily going to start playing Almora more than they already have been.
Those thoughts boil down to a couple of simple, understandable reasons.
First, and perhaps most importantly, Almora may very well be succeeding precisely because he’s been somewhat match-up and platoon-protected this season. And that’s certainly fair. We all saw what happened to Jon Jay as soon as he was exposed to more playing time, and it wasn’t too pretty.
Second, Almora’s competition for playing time, namely Ian Happ and Kyle Schwarber, haven’t been scrubs lately either, and both can help the Cubs win in other ways. It’s a balancing act.
But to be fair, Almora drew back-to-back starts against right-handed pitchers this weekend, and did really well (4-7, 2 2Bs, 2 RBI) in the process. And while Michael Wacha is a reverse-split righty, he’s still a righty (which is something), and Lance Lynn is about as brutal on right-handed batters as any right-handed pitcher in baseball (.255 wOBA). That Maddon put Almora in there against Lynn (of all pitchers) seems to hint at more playing time overall for Almora.
For his part, Almora says his confidence has never been higher, but he understands that winning is the greater priority at this point, not his playing time. Similarly, Joe Maddon seems to love what Almora has done, but has to be an objective balancer of team-needs given the tight divisional race in which the Cubs have found themselves.
But before you get angry thinking Almora is destined for a career on the bench, don’t. Maddon sees the writing on the wall: “But his time’s coming to play more,” said the Cubs manager. “What he’s doing right now is really obviously benefitting himself. He’s making a nice name or mark for himself.” And, of course, has already acted upon that writing by giving Almora the difficult matchup yesterday.
And in any case, that mark Almora has made is only growing.
In the second half of the season, across 116 plate appearances, he’s slashing an absolutely fantastic .333/.339/.523; 120 wRC+. Which includes a strikeout rate under 15% and an ISO up at .189. With his glove, that type of production makes for a HUGELY valuable player (if he could do it over the course of a full season).
And fortunately, there’s already reason for optimism on that front. One of the biggest criticisms Almora faces is, of course, his perceived inability to hit right-handed pitching. But a majority of his second-half plate appearances have actually come against righties (including both starts this weekend) and in that 63 PA sample, Almora is slashing .333/.323/.583 (126 wRC+).
Better yet, his typically weak contact and low power against righties has spiked up to a .250 ISO and .583 SLG in the second half, thanks to a really solid 38.9% hard-hit rate (average is around 32%).
He’s also hitting the ball in the air way more often lately, with just a 42.7% ground ball rate against both types of pitchers in the second half (and an even better 41.5% mark against righties).
In short, Almora is doing almost everything you want to see (in general), and is doing it against predominantly right-handed opponents.
To keep things balanced, I must point out that he hasn’t taken a single walk against right-handed pitching in the second half of the season and has drawn just six walks against them all year, but that’s likely to improve as pitchers start to realize how much damage he’s doing against them (that is, if he continues to lay off pitches out of the zone).
So while your immediate future may not be filled with a ton of Albert Almora, 2018 is looking more and more like his year. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he becomes the team’s primary center fielder next year and has a ton of success. For now, he’ll continue to primarily contribute off the bench, against lefties, and as a late-inning defensive replacement. That’s the best way he can help out the Cubs right now, and that’s the priority.