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Albert Almora is taking his game to new heights in 2018

Danielle Sauers



May 20, 2018; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Chicago Cubs center fielder Albert Almora Jr. hits a sacrifice fly against the Cincinnati Reds during the seventh inning at Great American Ball Park. Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports
David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no doubt that Albert Almora Jr. is a fan favorite. If he doesn’t start for more than a few days in a row, the #FreeAlmora hash tag is bound to be out in full force. He’s young, charismatic, and has been flashing serious leather in recent games, so it’s easy to see why the fans love him. But can he continue to contribute at a high enough level to justify regular starts?

The Cubs rarely have to ask “who’s on first?” but the question of who will start in the outfield is a hotly debated topic. Some do not agree with Joe Maddon’s regular changes in the lineup; however, the skipper is not concerned. Maddon recently told ESPN that he doesn’t care what people say about how often he changes his lineups, criticizing the entire conversation as unnecessary and outdated.

“I try not to comment on it, because really it’s such a poor discussion,” Maddon said. “There’s no sophistication to it whatsoever. It makes zero sense. It doesn’t belong in today’s game.”

The Cubs have used 28 different lineups so far this season, the sixth most in Major League Baseball. Is it such a problem to have so many talented players that the lineup needs to be juggled in order to provide equal playing time?

Almora, Ian Happ, Kyle Schwarber, and Jason Heyward make up the core of the Cubs’ 2018 outfield, with Ben Zobrist and a few others making rare appearances. The majority of the platoon style lineup takes place here, with Schwarber getting the most starts at 34, followed by Heyward with 29. Happ and Almora are tied with 27 starts each and 39 total games.

Both Happ and Schwarber have been under the microscope the past two seasons, with some doubting their defensive strengths. It seems that when either struggle, the Twitterverse quickly brings forth the #FreeAlmora chants.

It’s not surprising, as Almora is flashier on the field and has the most agility and speed of the three. He recently robbed ­­­­­­­­­Tyler Flowers of a home run on May 16 versus the Braves, effortlessly scaling the wall to make the grab above the 400 sign.

The eye test is one thing, and it’s usually what fans rely heavily on when voicing support for one player or another. Not to say that Almora is not deserving of every start he gets, but do the numbers match the hype?

Almora currently has a WAR of 1.5, second on the team only to Kris Bryant‘s 2.4. He is also 21 percent better than league average with 121 wRC+ and an above-average BABIP of .371. He has been making good contact for hits to supplement his solid defense. The high BABIP will likely not be sustainable throughout the entire season, but his consistency to date is promising.

Almora’s name has come up frequently in the great leadoff hitter debate, as the Cubs still haven’t settled on any one player taking the mantle on a regular basis. Schwarber and Happ have had their turns leading off, and neither fared as well as hoped. Almora has had eight starts as the leadoff hitter this season, with a .378 average and .911 OPS.

Perhaps the next test for Almora will be regular starts at the first spot in the lineup. His last three starts at lead-off were versus right-handed pitchers, and he has drastically improved his hitting against this type of pitching. Almora has a slash line of .306/.366/.388 in 85 at bats versus righties, compared to .271/.291/.420 for all of 2017. Almora has always fared well against left-handed pitching, but the ability to become more selective at the plate against righties is a great indicator of his commitment to growth.

Almora is likely to see more starts at lead-off with this recent success. He has started all but two of his games in center field. Schwarber has started all but one of his games in left (the one outlier being a designated hitter start versus the Cleveland Indians on April 24). Happ has gotten starts at all three outfield positions, but has started most often at left or center, with 14 games each. The right field spot is pretty safe with five-time Gold Glove winner, Heyward.

Happ has also been red hot at the plate, so it wouldn’t make sense to take him out of the lineup in favor of Almora. Schwarber likely does not have the speed to cover center, so the question of how to get everyone adequate starts remains up in the air. The rotating outfield isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as each player is still seeing fair time and the platooning allows the Cubs to stay rested. If any injuries arise, at least there are plenty of options for Maddon to choose from.

Almora’s marked improvement is hard to ignore. Nothing is guaranteed in baseball, and more starts mean more chances for pitchers to figure him out. He’s only 24 years old and in his third season in the majors, and has the maturity to continue to develop his eye at the plate and agility in the field. It doesn’t seem that Maddon will change his revolving lineup strategy any time soon, but the Cubs are lucky to have yet another formidable asset in Almora to add to the mix.

Danielle is a graduate of SUNY Geneseo and a lifelong baseball fan. She has worked for the Rochester Red Wings Triple-A club as a writer/website assistant. She currently writes for Locked On Cubs. You can follow her on Twitter at @dhsauers.

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Chicago Cubs

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Sep 3, 2018; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Chicago Cubs pitcher Cole Hamels (35) throws a pitch in the first inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

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June 26, 2018; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Chicago Cubs third baseman Javier Baez (9) rounds the bases after hitting a grand slam home run in the sixth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

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Aug 30, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Chicago Cubs second baseman Javier Baez (9) reacts center fielder Albert Almora Jr. (5) after making a catch against the Atlanta Braves during the ninth inning at SunTrust Park. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hagy -USA TODAY Sports
Adam Hagy -USA TODAY Sports

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