Chicago Cubs outfielder Albert Almora is in the midst of his fourth season at the big league level. All spent on the north side of Chicago, the 25-year-old has developed a knack for being a defensive-minded center fielder with his bat often lagging well behind his work in the field.
While posting solid defensive metrics despite playing only sparingly, Almora has yet to really find his groove at the plate, perhaps due to his lack of regular playing time. Even after appearing in 152 games last season, Almora racked up only 479 plate appearances, as he often entered games late for defensive purposes.
Almora’s platoon role with the Cubs has revolved around his inability to consistently hit right-handed pitching. For his career. Almora is slashing .278/.308/.390/.698 against right-handed pitchers, numbers that rise to .296/.347/.438/.785 when southpaws are on the mound.
Despite those marks, 11 of Almora’s 19 career home runs entering play on Friday came off right-handed pitchers, a figure that is no doubt the product of facing more righties than lefties over the course of his career. To back that up, Almora owns a .142 ISO when batting against left-handed pitchers, a mark that dips to just .113 against right-handers.
While Almora was touted as a solid offensive player coming out of the draft, the Cubs have yet to see the outfielder’s offensive ceiling. For his career, Almora has posted a slash line of .284/.321/.406/.727, establishing himself as a player who will record a solid batting average but not much else. His 5.1 percent career walk rate would challenge Javier Baez while his 93 wRC-plus slots Almora as a below average offensive player.
Sure, that last figure suggests Almora has been just seven percent worst than league average over the course of his early career, but that number is being propped up a bit. Across Almora’s first 179 big league games, he posted a wRC-plus north of 100, hitting a combined 11 home runs during the regular season.
Since then, across another 191 contests spanning the 2018 and 2019 seasons, Almora has managed only eight more home runs and posted wRC-plus’s of 89 and 70 respectively. Last season saw Almora post the worst offensive campaign of his career as he slashed .286/.323/.378 with a .305 wOBA and lackluster .092 ISO. Each of those last two numbers represented career-lows for Almora as he drew a walk only five percent of the time while striking out at a 17.3 percent clip (career marks).
Partly due to his work on the defensive side of the ball, Almora was slightly above replacement level in 2018 despite his terrible offensive numbers. Even with an additional 150 plate appearances from 2017 to 2018, Almora was only able to match his 1.1 WAR from ’17, making fans question if this was the outfielder’s offensive limit.
Judging by what Almora has done over the course of his career and so far in 2019, it would seem the best offensive version of Albert is one that is right around league average. This season, the Cubs would gladly take the league average version of Almora, but that has not been what they have received so far.
Through 39 games entering play on Friday, Almora was besting many of his career worst offensive numbers. With a .248/.285/.368 slash line, Almora has amassed a wOBA of only .275 this season with a 70 wRC-plus to boot. As for his peripheral numbers, while Almora’s strikeout rate is down from last season (16.8 percent), so is his walk rate (4.0 percent). That number would represent a career-low for Almora as he has never drawn more than 24 free passes in a season.
Looking deeper than some of the surface numbers, one can see a few bright spots for Almora this season. First off, on defense, Almora entered play without an error to his credit and ranks fourth in the majors with four outs above average at the center field position.
Offensively, Almora entered play in the midst of a solid stretch of play. From May 7 through first pitch on Friday, Almora was slashing .265/.265/.500/.765. As you can tell from the line, Almora had not drawn a walk over his last 34 plate appearances, a streak that extended into Friday’s action. Nevertheless, what he has done is begin to tap into his more at a higher clip, mashing two home runs and collecting two doubles over his last nine games.
Those knocks have helped to amass a .235 ISO for Almora over this recent stretch of play, as he has posted a healthy 11.8 percent strikeout rate to go along with his new-found power-stroke.
For his effort, Almora has put together a 99 wRC-plus over the last handful of games, giving fans and the front office alike a glimpse of what he can be on the offensive side of things.
No doubt helped by this recent power surge, Almora entered play with an ISO of .120 on the season, a 28 point increase from a year ago. Additionally, despite his 61.1 percent ground ball rate (career high), Almora has posted a hard contact rate of 30.6 percent, the highest of his career if it holds throughout the season.
As has been documented above, Almora struggled mightily in 2018. On 369 batted balls last season, Almora collected only five barrels according to Statcast. The season prior to that, Almora racked up 10 such barrels in only 251 batted balls, giving him a solid 4.0 barrel rate.
With his struggles in 2018, Almora’s barrel rate dipped to 1.4 percent, a number that fell within the bottom four percent of the league. In 2019, that number that returned back to 4.1 percent as the Cubs outfielder has managed four barrels in just 98 batted balls entering play. Even with that, however, Almora’s average launch angle is the lowest of his career of 6.6 degrees while his .247 expected batting average and .268 xwOBA would follow if they hold for the remainder of the season.
Nevertheless, Almora’s 32.7 percent hard hit percentage ranks as the highest of his career while his 22.2 percent whiff rate represents the best mark of his career.
With his good run still in full-swing, Almora found himself hitting out of the eight-hole in Joe Maddon‘s lineup on Friday night in Washington. Facing one of the toughest pitchers in baseball in the form of Max Scherzer, many knew runs would be a premium in our nation’s capital.
Early on, however, it seemed neither Scherzer nor Cole Hamels (the Cubs’ starter) was at the top of their game. Starting with the home club’s starter, Scherzer walked lead-off man Kyle Schwarber on four pitches to kick-off Friday’s contest. Just a pitch later, and only five into the game, the Cubs had two runners on base against Scherzer as Kris Bryant ripped a solid single through the left side of the infield behind Schwarber.
For Bryant, the slugger’s streak of reaching base in 25 straight games entering play was extended with that base knock, running that number to 26, the longest active streak in baseball.
Over the last handful of games, the Cubs have struggled with men in scoring position, hitting just .135 and collecting a mere seven hits in their last 67 plate appearances with a run-scoring opportunity. On Friday, it seemed the Cubs would only further add to that number as Anthony Rizzo grounded into a 3-6-1 double play.
Despite the twin-killing, Rizzo’s ground ball moved Schwarber to third with Baez due at the plate and two away. Baez has been one the Cubs’ most consistent players this season, entering play with a .326/.360/.611/.972 slash line with 11 home runs and 29 RBI. On pace to challenge his MVP-caliber numbers from last season, Baez added to his RBI column by slapping a double into left field and giving the Cubs an early 1-0 lead on Friday against Scherzer and the Nationals.
That knock moved Baez’s hitting streak to 15 games, the longest current run in the majors.
After finishing the first inning with a strikeout of Willson Contreras, Scherzer was able to retire Daniel Descalso with a fly out to kick-off the second frame. Luckily for the Cubs, however, Jason Heyward found some good graces, ending his 0-for-22 run with a floater into right-center that resulted in a single for the veteran. Despite getting off to a red-hot start at the plate, Heyward entered play hitting in the lower .200’s and batting out of the seven-hole.
With that being said, his one out single in the second sat the table for Almora to stretch the Cubs’ lead in the early-going against Scherzer. On an 0-2 count, the veteran right-hander tossed Almora a nasty-looking 83 MPH change-up that drifted well inside. No matter the location, the Cubs’ outfielder was able to pull his hands in, sending the Scherzer offering 445-feet to left field at 106.9 MPH. The longest home run of his career, Almora’s towering shot in the second inning extended the visiting club’s lead to 3-0.
Reinforced by his home run on Friday, Almora has vastly improved his numbers against off-speed pitches. In 2018, Almora hit .171 with an expected batting average of .162 on off-speed pitches, adding a slugging percentage of just .257 to the mix. This season, those numbers have ticked up dramatically thus far in 2019. Entering play, Almora was hitting .286 on off-speed pitches with an expected batting average of .288 and a slugging percentage 100 points higher than 2018’s mark.
To boot, Almora began play averaging .302 with a .444 slugging percentage against fastballs, numbers that fall in-line with his 2018 figures.
Staked to a 3-0 lead courtesy of Almora and Baez, Hamels was never the sharpest version of himself on Friday. Early on, the first inning represented the first of many tight ropes the left-hander would walk as he loaded the bases with two away. Nevertheless, as remained the theme throughout his outing, Hamels worked himself through trouble, inducing a fly out to escape the jam.
In each of the fourth and fifth innings, Hamels found himself in challenging situations as the Cubs clung to a one-run advantage. With runners on second and third base and no outs in the fourth, Hamels recorded a strikeout, fly out and ground out to hold the Nationals at bay. In the fifth, Hamels once again allowed Washington to load the bases, this time with two outs, before striking out Michael Taylor to quite the threat.
Perhaps as a bit of irony, the only runs allowed by the veteran on Friday came as a result of the first two batters of an inning, one that otherwise would have been a 1-2-3 frame. In the third inning, Victor Robles was clipped with a pitch by Hamels and was allowed to walk home courtesy of an Anthony Rendon two-run long ball that made the score 3-2 Cubs.
Cut to a one-run lead, the Nationals threatened in each of the fourth, fifth and sixth innings. As mentioned above, Hamels quieted two of those rallies, with the bullpen stepping up and shutting the Nationals down in the sixth. Despite Kyle Ryan allowing two runners to reach base with one out (single and walk), Brad Brach entered and needed only one pitch to induce a 6-4-3 double play to put an end to the threat from the home team.
Due to the multitude of base runners and sticky situations allowed by Hamels on Friday, the left-hander’s pitch count quickly jumped out of control. For that reason, Hamels only completed five innings, needing 101 pitches to do so. Of those offerings, though, Hamels induced 10 swinging strikes, two each on the five different pitches he featured (two-seam fastball, four-seam fastball, cutter, change-up and curve-ball). Additionally, Hamels added eight called strikes, three with his cutter and another two on his change-up.
While he was able to limit the Nationals to only two runs over five innings, Hamels’ command was never really present as he amassed 60 strikes, leaving the remaining 41 to be called balls. Hamels’ final line looked like this: five innings, seven hits, two earned runs, three walks and five strikeouts on the aforementioned 101 pitches to lift his season ERA to 3.13.
With Hamels out of the game, the bullpen was tasked with eating four innings to lock down the win. No matter their success of late, insurance runs are always a good idea, especially against a potentially potent Nationals lineup. In each of the final three innings, insurance runs are exactly what the Cubs got.
Thanks to a two-run home run by Kris Bryant, the Cubs took a 5-2 lead into the latter portions of Friday’s contest. For Bryant, his 401-foot blast to center field represented his ninth long ball of the season, pushing his RBI total to 28 in the process and further building the .914 OPS he took into play.
Bryant and the Cubs would not be done supplying power on Friday night, however, even as the Nationals rallied to cut their lead to just one run. Courtesy of three straight singles and a balk in the bottom of the seventh, Washington made the score 5-4 still in favor of the Cubs.
While Carl Edwards Jr. supplied the balk, he also made a great play to keep the Nationals from tying the game in the seventh. Just a handful of pitches after balking in Washington’s fourth run of the game, Edwards spiked a curve-ball in front of home plate that completely eluded Contreras behind the plate. Thinking the ball had kicked into foul territory, Contreras run toward the first base dugout as Brian Dozier broke for home from third base.
Instead of rolling out of play, however, the ball kicked up in the air and landed in front of home plate, allowing Edwards to field it and induce a run-down that retired Dozier and preserved the Cubs’ lead.
Perhaps sensing that five runs would not be enough, the Cubs together another rally, this time in the eighth inning. Sat up by Almora who singled to kick-off the frame, Schwarber worked a 12-pitch at-bat from Kyle Barraclough before sending the 13th pitch from the reliever into the bullpen in left field, stretching the Cubs advantage to 7-4.
As it turned out, that at-bat spelled how the inning would go for the Nationals as the Cubs tacked five runs their lead in the eighth, making what was once a close game a 10-4 contest. All told, the Cubs sent 10 men to the plate, scoring five of them as Bryant added a solo blast to the mix for his 10th of the season and second of the day.
Despite allowing the Nationals to rack up 13 hits, Hamels and the Cubs’ bullpen limited the home team to six runs. For the Cubs, they strung together 18 hits with five coming in the eighth, plating 14 runs in the process while going just 3-for-12 with runners in scoring position.
Perhaps for good measure, Bryant continued pounding the baseball on Friday. This time in the ninth inning with a runner on base, Bryant punished his third ball of the game, sending an offering from Matt Grace 410-feet to left field. Off the bat at 108.3 MPH, it was the hardest hit of his three home runs on Friday as his first two exited the lumber at 102.3 and 99.7 MPH respectively.
All told, Bryant finished the night 4-for-6 with three home runs, five RBI and three runs scored, collecting long balls number nine, ten and 11 on the season. For the slugger, it is his second three home run game of his career as the Cubs plated a total of 11 runs in the final three innings.
Bryant’s two-run shot in the ninth not only gave him a long ball in the seventh, eighth and ninth frames but it moved the Cubs’ lead to 12-4. Well, just two batters later, Contreras entered the action, crushing a two-run bomb of his own just over the right field wall. That home run by the Cubs’ back-stop was his 11th of the season, already more than he hit in 138 games last season. Additionally, Contreras’ home run gave the Cubs six home runs on the night and capped the scoring Cubs’ scoring at 14 runs as the Nationals added two to their tally in the ninth to cap the overall scoring at 14-6 in favor of the visiting club.
Overall, the combination of Contreras and Bryant went 8-for-11 with four home runs, seven RBI and four runs scored on Friday in an absolute drubbing of the Nationals.
With the win, the Cubs improve to 26-16 while the Nationals fall to 18-26 on the season.
Next Up for the Cubs
The Cubs will continue their three-game set with the Nationals on Saturday at 6:15 pm at Nationals Park. Taking the ball for the Cubs will be left-hander Jon Lester (3-1, 1.16 ERA). Since returning from a hamstring injury on April 25, Lester has been at the top of his game. Across 24.2 innings spanning four starts, the southpaw has yielded just four runs (one earned) on 22 hits while striking a combined 25 batters.
Three of those four outings have resulted in wins for the Cubs as the left-hander has lowered his ERA more than a full run to where it stands now at a sparkling 1.16.
Opposing Lester on the mound Saturday will be right-hander Stephen Strasburg (3-3, 3.63 ERA). Like his counterpart, Strasburg has also been solid over his last handful of starts. Since May 1, the veteran has made three starts, spanning 19.1 innings and posting a 3.26 ERA in the process. Across that same time frame, Strasburg has struck out 27 batters versus just six walks.
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