The state of Albert Almora Jr.’s 2019 campaign, if not his whole career, can be summed up in the experience of writing this article. I initially wanted to write about how odd it was that a talented contender like this years Chicago Cubs would continue to trot out a below replacement level player as much as they do Almora. Unfortunately for Almora, he couldn’t even manage to stand out in how bad he’s been. No matter what stat I dug into or the qualifiers I used contending teams have a long history of wasting at-bats on criminal underperformers. Almora is but one in a long line of players who have kept playing every day despite not being better than a replacement player from the minor leagues.
Why Almora stands out in my mind’s eye is that he continues to be put into important positions in the lineup. Cubs manager Joe Maddon doesn’t treat Almora like the glove first (more on that later) no bat outfielder that he is. Nope, Maddon keeps plugging Almora into the leadoff spot or batting him fifth or sixth. There’s no rational excuse for batting someone who makes weak contact, doesn’t get on base, and is quite slow anywhere but eighth or ninth in the order. As Cubs fans have learned all year long there’s no amount of logic that can explain Albert Almora Jr.’s place on the team.
I want to make it clear, I like Albert. Every step of the way I believed that he was the Cubs future in center field. Coming up through the minor leagues I liked what I saw and thought he was making the adjustments to be at the very worst a positive regular contributor to the major league ball club. Ever since he made his big league debut in 2016 it has been a slow, and now fast, fall down the mountain of expectations for Almora. I still root for the guy, I still want him to do good, but now that means I want him to only weakly ground out to second once or twice a game as opposed to every at-bat.
In the 2019 season, it is clear that Almora’s production has cratered and I’m not sure if there is any way he comes back to help the Cubs this year, or any year really. Almora’s slash line of .243/.275/.396 features career lows in BA and OBP, and a SLG that is barely above his previous career low of .378. His BB% of 4.1 is also a career-low (and bottom 5% in the league), and while his K% is still a very good 16.9 that must be taken with a grain of salt. The salt is needed because his Hard Hit% is an anemic bottom 8% of the league 27.8 and his Exit Velocity of 85.1 falls into the same bottom of the league grouping. He’s actually hitting for more power this year, his .153 ISO is his best as a regular starter. Again though, how much does that matter when he’s routinely grounding out weakly to the second baseman?
All of Almora’s plus stats are bad, but it is his DRC+ of 74 that is the most damning. That statistic is the most nuanced of the plus stats and plugs in so many variables to help prove what offense a hitter can actually claim as their own. Yet, Almora’s DRC+ is almost the same as his 69 WRC+ and 70 OPS+. Underlying all this is a BABIP of .261, another career low. That could be used to argue that Almora has been very unlucky, and while a BABIP that low is a sign of some bad luck a .256 xBA, .377 xSLG, and .286 xwOBA speak not to him being unlucky but him being outright bad.
Another issue working against Almora is his lack of speed. I realize that Sprint Speed grades Almora as in the 85th percentile, but frankly, that can’t be right. I’m more inclined to believe his below-average Spd of 3.6 and extremely poor BRR of -0.3. Everyone has always known, Sprint Speed metric be damned, that Almora is slow. He used to be a good baserunner though, someone who made up for his lack of speed with his intuition and ability to be selectively aggressive and cut the right corners. As BRR shows the former first-round pick is now a formerly good baserunner.
The one coat of armor that always made Almora bulletproof was his defense. It was ok to acknowledge that his bat came up short or that he was slow as long as he maintained his status as a great defensive center fielder. The highlight catches have continued this year, only they are now accompanied by more blunders than ever before. Baseball Savant still loves Almora’s defense and rates him in the 95th percentile for OAA and 87th percentile for Outfield Jump. FanGraphs and DRS vehemently disagree with a mark of -3, while Baseball Prospectus’ FRAA scores the Florida native as a good 3.2. Fielding metrics are known to be volatile season-by-season and from site-to-site. In this case, I’ll take what my eyes have shown me in congruence with his DRS to tell you that Almora has become a poor defensive center fielder.
The Cubs may not make the playoffs this year, and if that happens the insistence to continue to give Albert Almora Jr. playing time deserves the utmost scrutiny. After an offseason where Theo Epstein loudly declared production mattered more than talent Almora presents Epstein as a liar. If production matters more than talent then why does Almora and his -0.2 fWAR continue to get meaningful playing time game after game? Just as I finished this article the Cubs optioned Almora to the minor leagues. Seeing as that’s a move that should have taken place earlier in the season one has to wonder if it’s too little too late as far as the Cubs playoff chances are concerned.
Lead photo courtesy of John J. Kim – Chicago Tribune