Updated: Jan 9, 2020
Chicago Cubs centerfielder, Albert Almora has always been treated with pessimism. Ever since he was a budding prospect, the question was always his bat: can he hit enough at the big league level to justify his glove?
The pitchforks are out now. After a brutal 2019, many meatballs think he doesn't deserve any plate appearances ever again.
While he did have a major slump after the foul ball incident on May 29th in Houston, the struggles began sooner that. A quick glance at his career numbers and he's lost nearly 20 off his OPS+ the last 2 years in a row.
In 4 years, Almora's been... well below average with the bat. He showed promise early, but didn't quite take the second step forward. The last two years have been especially disappointing just by looking at stats in a full level.
Unfortunately, his struggle didn't begin late May of 2019, but rather the year before in 2018
Like many 2018 Cubs, his second half offense just evaporated. His batting average and OBP dropped by .100, and the slugging nearly dropped by half. Now many Twitter pundits want him off the Cubs roster, based off bat alone.
What went wrong for Almora? How did a number draft pick start to slide so much in his 4th year in the bigs?
It's a complicated answer that I'll examine today.
Before jumping into the deep stats, let us look at Almora's profile as a hitter
League average for the last 4 years on these numbers read:
GB/FB 1.25, LD% 21%, GB% 43.5% FB% 35.4% IFFB% 9.7% HR/FB 14% IFH% 6.6% BUH%22.7
Pull %:40.1% Cent%: 34.6% Oppo% 25.2%
Soft%: 18% Med%: 48% Hard %: 34% (going from 31% in '16 and 17 to 35.3 in '18 and then 38 % last season)
What does this equate to?
-Almora hits 1% less line drives, 7% more ground balls, and 6% less fly balls than league average.
-He goes opposite field instead of pulling about 2% more than league average
-He hits balls softly 4% more, medium hit balls 2% more, and then hard hit balls nearly 6% less than league average.
-Almora has 3% more infield hits than league average, despite not bunting much.
-Home runs on fly balls is down 4% over league average.
-When Almora hits a ground ball, his career RC+ is 40. AKA terrible.
Almora makes a lot of contact, and in theory, should be good. But all of these numbers indicate a lack of power. More grounders, more weak contact, less line drives and sharply hit balls. In a power happy MLB, Almora is left behind.
Almora makes a lot of contact, isn't that a good thing? BABIP: many people use batting average on balls in play as a prediction tool. It's useful, but I often feel like it becomes a lazy catch all for predicting a player's performance. After all, if a player is hitting the ball hard, shouldn't a higher BAPIP be expected? BABIP is batting average on balls in play. It does not count home runs, as those are technically out of play. It helps measure defense, luck, and talent level Typically MLB average BABIP is .300. The best hitters can peak around .350, while the worst are closer to .260.
One of the biggest criticisms against Almora is is BABIP. When he's hit well, his BABIP spikes. People call him lucky, not talented. At the eye test, I always thought Almora had decent power, when he actually squares things up. Let's examine a few charts to try and evaluate how lucky Almora has been.
Here is how Almora's BABIP correlates to his overall performance, both in terms of on base and power. As you can see, the BABIP and OBP are closely linked. Makes sense, because as hits drop in, Almora is getting on base. Almora has never been one to take walks, so there's not much difference between the batting average and on base.
Slugging is a different story. For the most part, that spikes with the BABIP. Makes sense, because if he's hitting the ball hard, that should be tougher for the defense. But then early in 2019, the slugging spikes way outside the norm at similar times as the BABIP. Meanwhile his OBP remains low.
Here is how Almora's BABIP correlates to his ability to make contact. In addition to seeing how his BABIP has dropped, we can see that his contact level has remained consistent.
The lack of power is a concern. As Almora makes weaker contact, ground balls are likely to rise. judging from the above chart, the two became almost inversely related at times in 2019. As his ground ball rate spiked over 60% 3 times, his BABIP plummeted below .220. Some parts of this might be bad luck, but at the same time, you aren't going to get a lot of hits with a ground ball rate that high.
The first question that came to my mind is "Is Albert Almora growing weaker?" Is there some injury that's sapping power? Or perhaps he's not recognizing pitches, getting fooled, etc. Or maybe there's an issue with the approach. Something is clearly off. Time to diagnose. First up, let's look at some of his statcast statistics.
-Hard hit has remained similar throughout his career, but noticeably more than 5% lower than MLB average.
-His exit velocity and launch angle are both below MLB average.
-His barrel % has always been below average.
-strikeouts are nearly 5% below average, where walks are 3.3% below average.
Translation, he makes soft contact. A lot of soft contact. He walks and strikes out 8% less than average, essentially meaning he puts the ball in play 8% more than the average MLB player. MLB defenses can analyze and exploit this. Let's see if they have, by looking at RC+ with shifts applied:
So MLB teams are learning how to defend against Almora. Particularly with the non-traditional (as in extreme) shifts. As one would expect as more and more data becomes available, and particularly as Almora's ground ball rates get higher. Here's a diagram of his contact:
That's a whole lot of green ground balls to the left side, and not a lot getting through. Based off that spray chart, I feel like you can easily slide the infield left a bit, then shade the outfield right, and be good to go.
Let's look at what Almora swings at. I've got a couple sharts showing % of pitches that he swings at both inside and outside the strike zone, over time.
O-swing is swings at pitches outside the zone. Z-swing is pitches inside the zone. So ideally a low O and high Z are ideal. Low Z and high O are bad. Particularly a high O-Swing %. MLB average O-swing is 30%, where z-swing is 65%.
-Almora's big slumps were second half 2018, and then May on in 2019. O-Swing %s are nearly 10% above average at those times
-I see a general correlation between o-swing and z-swing, but you'll notice that z-swing doesn't have quite the same fluctuations. But again, when Almora slumps, the Z-Swing is lower. This means something.
-Both of these stats are much higher than MLB average. At best it's close to league average, and at worst it's 20% higher.
Almora swings a lot. And when struggling, he swings at too many pitches outside the zone. This likely results in soft contact, and easy ground balls for the defense. This lines up with Chats A and B that show his performances drops as Babip drops as GB% rises.
More concerning is how he swings at fewer pitches in the strike zone when struggling. Are these borderline pitches that he's not recognizing properly? Is he waiting on an offspeed pitch and getting fastballs thrown by him without swinging? Clearly with his lack of walks and free swinging tendencies, he's not working a lot of deep counts. So what's the issue exactly? Are pitchers fooling him once they figured him out?
Let's look at plate discipline:
Key stats from here:
-67% first strike percentage, nearly 10% above average. Pitcher gets an easy first strike, and then you have to defend instead of being selective.
-O contact and Z contact are within 3% of MLB average, so he's making similar amounts of contact on swings as MLB average. But since he swings more, more balls are in play.
As I was going through, I was trying to look up Almora's stats vs different pitches to see how pitchers are fooling him. There's one glaring outlier. The slider.
There is almost a completely inverse relationship between Almora's OPS and sliders. As pitchers throw more sliders against him, his OPS tanks. Likewise his OPS was at his best when it was getting thrown less. It's not like pitchers are throwing him just sliders, as the range is typically 15%-35%, or essentially, one to two pitches per plate appearance. This direct correlation is not present in any other kind of pitch in all of fangraph's data.
How bad is it?
In 2019, Almora hit .108 against the slider. Compared to .291 against the fastball, .304 against sinkers, .303 against changeups. He did his .176 against the curve, although in much fewer pitches than most others.
For his career, his RC+ reads like this:
Fastball: 155. Slider: 39. Sinker: 103. Curveball 31. Changeup 83. Cutter 60.
So Almora's 2 worst pitches are the slider and curve. Breaking balls. Albert Almora cannot hit a breaking ball, and struggles with offspeed.
The last thing I'll bring up are Almora's splits. He's often been thought of as a platoon guy. He's struggled against RHP, but hit lefties well. Before his major slumps, that might have been more obvious. But as it stands right now, Almora puts up a .739 OPS against LHP and .701 against RHP. In 2017, he put up a .898 OPS vs lefties, so he's fallen very far.
It's also worth nothing that when the pitcher is ahead, his OPS is .519. When he's ahead in the count, it's a more respectable .729
The keys are pretty simple. Almora needs to make less weak contact. He needs to learn to lay off breaking balls, particularly sliders and curves. With how much he swings, a pitcher can get him out with a routine grounder to the 3B side with a breaking pitch or two. If a pitcher can get a first pitch strike on a fastball, Almora is toast. It's frustrating problem to have, but also a clear cut one.
If Almora can just learn to be more selective and not swing at breaking pitches as much, and potentially even hit them every once in a while, his value greatly increases. But as MLB has figured out this Achilles heel, it's hard to imagine him having much value at the big league level.
Can he rebound? I think so. If it's just a pitch or two he struggles with, I'd hope that deep batting cage time and experience can help correct it. But it sure seems like pitchers have adjusted to him, and he hasn't quite adjusted back. There's a big enough sample size that he should know what to work on. We shall have to wait and see.