Recently, Patrick Mooney had a good article up at The Athletic on Albert Almora‘s friendship with free-agent-to-be Manny Machado (a la Kris Bryant and Bryce Harper), and where the Cubs young center fielder might see himself next season and beyond.
If you have the time, you should definitely check it out, because Almora’s confidence and attitude will get you amped for the season ahead, if nothing else. It also got me looking back at his 2017 season.
As a whole, Almora slashed .298/.338/.445 (103 wRC+), which is really solid production, when you consider his defensive value and the fact that he was barely 23, and in his first full MLB season. Of course, that production came with a huge split – he was far better against lefties (137 wRC+) for the season than against righties (81), which is not what you’d see in an ideal world for a guy who wants to be an everyday player.
Almora also had pretty pronounced splits between the first half of the season (93 wRC+) and second half of the season (117), and those splits were largely tied to the platoon splits.
In the first half of the season, Almora struggled ESPECIALLY hard against right-handed hitters: .241/.279/.319 (56 wRC+ in 123 plate appearances). He added a 4.9 BB%, 21.1 K%, a .078 ISO, and a .303 BABIP. On top of that, he was hitting a TON of ground balls (56.8%), very few fly balls (27.3%), and was popping far too much up in the infield (12.5%). Naturally, as I’m sure you could imagine, his soft (23.1%) and hard (25.3%) contact were … not great.
To put it simply: in the first half of the season, Almora was brutally bad against right-handed pitching.
In the second half of the season, however, Almora’s slash line against righties absolutely skyrocketed: .319/.311/.583 (123 wRC+ in 75 plate appearances). His strikeout rate stayed the same and he wasn’t walking (like literally at all), but his .264 ISO was Bryzzo-esq and helped support a much higher BABIP. Moreover, his batted ball profile improved across the board (43.9 GB%, 39.1 FB%, 8.0 IFFB%) and he was making so much better contact: 15.4 soft%, 36.9 hard%.
Needless to say, Almora crushed righties in the second half of the season, which raised his overall production, and nearly all of the first-level peripherals (more fly balls, more hard contact, less ground balls, less soft contact) were there to support it.
But that doesn’t mean there are not still questions to answer/points to raise.
Small Sample Size
There’s really no getting around this one, because 75 plate appearances is not a huge sample. A ball in the gap here, a ball that just leaves the park there, and you can see some peripheral statistics climb rapidly.
HOWEVER, it’s not like we’re comparing it against 300 first-half PAs against righties (it was only 123). And the numbers from the second half were so much better than the first half that it is at least as plausible that Almora found a way to make better contact against righties in the second half as it is that it was just a small sample fluke. We may not know which it actually was until much later this year, though.
FanGraphs Split Tool doesn’t allow you to view plate discipline numbers for partial seasons against a particular handed pitcher, so we’ll just take a look at the differences between the first and second half to get a broad sense of what happened.
And, unfortunately, here’s where I don’t love what I see.
In the first half of the season, Almora was swinging at 33.3% of pitches out of the zone, but that number sky-rocketed to 47.0% in the second half. He was offering at more pitches in the zone, too, but that seems to be a product of a more aggressive approach overall. Worse, Almora was making even more contact with those pitches out of the zone in the second half, which, all things equal, is not something you love to see (pitches out of the zone are usually less likely to be met with solid contact).
Fortunately, he matched that with some more zone contact as well, but we already knew Almora could make contact with anything he sees (he is like Starlin Castro in that sense). Clearly, what we saw in the second half was not a selectively aggressive approach, but rather someone with elite contact skills swinging a whole lot (and, thus, walking very infrequently and striking out plenty).
… But here’s the thing.
He may not have walked against righties in the second half, but he only struck out at a 13.3% clip and managed to work a .264 ISO and a .583 SLG thanks to a 36.9% hard contact rate. Maybe he *shouldn’t* have made such great contact, but he did.
In fact, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to learn that the front office/coaching staff drew on the lessons they previously learned from the failed attempts to change Castro’s approach, electing instead to let Almora do what he does best … swing, baby, swing. This isn’t a one-size fits all organization, and some guys may simply have the most success they can realistically have by swinging more often overall.
So where does that leave us?
Well, there’s no question that we’ll be tracking Almora’s at-bats against righties with great attention and furrowed brows this season, because despite the second half successes, the small sample and poor plate discipline leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
HOWEVER, it’s entirely possible that Almora can continue to mash lefties (and be more patient/selectively aggressive against them), while building on the progress he’s made against righties with a more aggressive/contact-first approach. That might mean he’ll be a little BABIP-dependent in the early going in his career.
And do not forget that Almora is only now the age Kris Bryant was when he first debuted in the Majors, even if Almora has been a pro for quite a while (drafted in 2012). So be patient, because there’s a lot of good here to work with – much more than the bad.