At first glance, Albert Almora Jr. seems to have gotten off to a solid start this spring. While an 0-for-6 streak over the last three games has dragged his numbers down somewhat, his batting average still sits at a respectable .286 in 28 plate appearances with a decent slugging percentage to boot. Between that and the lack of viable options, the center fielder has emerged as a candidate to lead off.
Almora got off to a hot start during the regular season last year, too. In 298 plate appearances before the All-Star break, he slashed .319/.357/.438 with a 115 wRC+. But even in the midst of an early chase for the batting title, there was talk that Almora’s success might not be as a valuable as it appeared.
As if to prove that point, he went into a tailspin in the second half, slashing .232/.267/.280 with a 47 wRC+ in his first 118 second-half plate appearances Throughout 2018, Almora’s success was completely dependent upon his batting average, and he was left without a fail-safe when his first half BABIP of .372 fell to .279 in the second half.
Almora also suffered from an inability to work the count in a meaningful way, as his 3.36 pitches per plate appearance ranked last among qualified Cubs hitters. Poor on-base skills coupled with an inability to make the opposing pitcher sweat aren’t an ideal combination for a leadoff hitter. But could Almora’s early success be built on improvement in these areas?
So far, the answer is not really.
In what is admittedly a very limited sample, Almora has yet to demonstrate either decreased dependence on good BABIP fortune or an improvement in his ability to make opponents throw more than a few pitches to get him out. A .286 line is much more impressive as a batting average than as an on-base percentage, but since Almora has yet to draw a walk this spring, those numbers are one in the same.
There also isn’t a lot to suggest a focus on improving this facet of Almora’s game. His retooled swing has drawn rave reviews, but seeing a paltry 1.21 pitches per plate appearance so far this spring means his approach probably hasn’t changed. If he’s trying to work on pitch recognition and plate discipline, he’s not giving himself much time to do it.
Hitters are always working on different things during spring training, so it’s not fair to write off Almora potentially making improvements based on limited results to this point. However, if the expectation is that he may be at or near the top of the lineup this season, you might reasonably expect that there’d be a focus on those areas of his game that have been lacking. We just don’t have any evidence that there has been.
With Ian Happ off to a more traditionally bad start this spring, neither player has definitively shown that he should get the lion’s share of opportunities to start in center field in 2019. The Cubs largely platooned Happ and Almora last year and it’s to imagine we won’t see the same in 2019.
As for Almora in particular, it looks like he’ll continue to go as far as his BABIP will take him.