Remember Albert Almora?
Well, alright, that’s probably an exaggeration. I don’t think anyone who even passively follows amateur Cubs writing online has forgotten about the sixth overall pick of the 2012 draft, the first selection of the Epstein-Hoyer-McLeod era.
But you know what I mean.
The Cubs’ overhaul has accelerated dramatically over roughly the past calendar year. The prospect stampede has broken through the gates, and the impact has been exhilarating. Kris Bryant has already accumulated nearly 4 WAR. Addison Russell has ripped the starting shortstop position from Starlin Castro, probably permanently. And Kyle Schwarber has only, you know, murdered baseballs repeatedly since his call-up and subsequent re-call-up.
It’s felt like one of those giant, hulking levers, like in some cartoon, has been finally ratcheted over to the “on” position. There’s no split attention anymore, really. All eyes are on the big-league club. All the blue-chip prospects have arrived (see you in September though, Javy), and they’ve helped the Cubs burst into the playoff picture.
But you know how the Epstein administration operates. There’s no such thing as a finished a product, and no such thing as an empty pipeline. And while the senior circuit should rightfully (finally) have everyone’s attention right now, there’s something pretty exciting happening below the surface that you should know about: Albert Almora has seriously figured things out at the plate, and looking a few years forward, it’s a potential game-changer for the Cubs.
Everyone knew Almora could play plus defense in center field. Everyone knew he possessed elite contact skills. But there was serious, borderline damning concern heading into this season that his lack of plate discipline would be not just the weakest aspect of his game, but a chokepoint on his potential, a profile-crushing limiting factor.
Baseball Prospectus actually took a look at it in March, in the context of his 2014 campaign in double-A Tennessee:
Not only does he sport the lowest walk rate of any of the top hitting prospects in the game (by a notable margin) but it’s a lower rate than any current major leaguer. More strikingly, there are literally no current major leaguers who walked as infrequently in the minors as Almora has as a professional.
Alarming, right? That wasn’t even the end of it. The analysis would conclude with this particularly ominous paragraph:
Almora is a top 101 prospect, but in order to justify his lofty ranking, he almost has to hit around .290-.300. The only players in the majors who have done that over any kind of extended period of time with a similarly extreme level of aggressiveness are Howie Kendrick and Pablo Sandoval, two notoriously free swingers with elite bat-to-ball skills. Almora’s pure hitting ability might be in their class, but he will have to improve his patience and approach to reach even their low walk rates. If he falls short of their elite hitting ability by even a little bit, we’re talking about a player who makes an obscene amount of outs and will fall well below his ceiling.
So the stakes were clear heading into 2015: Almora had one of the worst displays of plate discipline imaginable in his first go-round at double-A (a 0.09 BB/K rate, third-worst among all hitters with at least 140 PA). If he didn’t dramatically improve his walk rate, strikeout rate and walk-to-strikeout ratio, we could probably simply forget about the rest of the profile being remotely enough to add up to an excellent starting center fielder.
Well, it’s a Cubbie Miracle, because he’s flippin’ done it: Almora has figured out double-A pitching. He’s improved his ability to draw a walk, cut down his strikeout rate and, as a result, dramatically transformed his BB/K ratio:
Those aren’t just little bumps; they’re leaps of improvement. From last season to this one, against quality double-A pitching, Almora has improved his BB rate fivefold, cut down his K rate by one-third and improved his BB/K rate by almost eightfold.
That newfound plate discipline has triggered a chain reaction of sorts that has led to all kinds of offensive improvement. Here are Almora’s lines over his past 19 games:
Over his last 86 PA, Almora’s knocked out 15 singles, 6 doubles and a pair of homers, all while producing a BB/K rate of 1.43. He’s currently on a six-game multi-hit streak, a four-game doubles streak and just snapped a five-game walk streak. His strikeout on Sunday was his first in eight games.
This is a big deal. This is what it looks like when a 21-year-old starts figuring it out. The swings are getting reserved for hittable pitches, so the barrel is connecting more squarely, so the balls that had slapped into infield outs are being driven into gaps in the outfield, so the weighted on-base average shoots up, so the entire profile takes a major leap forward.
It’s all a bit hard to believe, honestly. As recently as two months ago, Almora was floundering at the plate. Even though his improved approach had already started to show in the walk and strikeout columns, his wOBA continued to hover below .290. Yours truly wasn’t the only one beginning to reserve long-term mental space for the “Theo’s first bust” narrative. Double-A is where prospect helium sputters out of the balloon, where the first-division studs separate from the other 90-something percent, and that first stint, to say the least, did not look good.
And it could still come up short for Almora. He could find himself stifled and regress badly in Iowa. Or he could hold his own there, only to disintegrate against big-league pitching. But that’s not the story yet.
Right now, the story is that Albert Almora has figured a lot of things out at the plate. More than that, he’s become a downright discerning hitter. If this new approach translates over the remaining two levels, we’re looking at a potential .300-hitting, exceptionally defending center fielder with fantastic makeup and a decent amount of yet-to-be-tapped power.
Is that good?