Albert Almora Jr. came into spring training with a remodeled swing that combined his old leg kick with a touch of Moises Alou‘s knock-kneed stance. But what killed in the cage didn’t play on the main stage, as Almora limped out of the gate with a .639 OPS and 69 wRC+ through his first 76 plate appearances. Not nice at all.
Making matters worse, he was absolutely pathetic when facing the left-handed pitchers against whom he was supposed to offer better platoon splits. In 30 plate appearances through April, Almora had a .412 OPS with a wRC+ of just 15. For the Philistines out there, that latter number means he was 85% worse than the average hitter against lefties, which is 100% awful.
The numbers actually feel even further through his first two May starts, as he went 0-for-9 and dropped to a .575 OPS and 51 wRC+ overall (.385 OPS and 7 wRC+ against lefties). But then something clicked, as his departure from that exaggerated leg kick at some point in mid-to-late April really took hold. The results weren’t immediate, but it’s apparent from the last two weeks that something has changed.
In 50 plate appearances since May 5, Almora has a .973 OPS and a 155 wRC+ with very promising splits. Though he continues to hit righties better (.991/161), his performance against lefties has skyrocketed (.909/135). He’s also hit three home runs in that span, none of which have come against weak pitchers (Caleb Smith, Sonny Gray, Max Scherzer).
Oh, and Almora’s first homer of the season came against the Dodgers’ all-world closer, Kenley Jansen. That was on April 25, when he was using the quieter move but hadn’t quite settled into it yet. For more on exactly what has changed, let’s look at a pair of photos and three videos to compare early in the year to now.
The difference is as stark as Ned — I really hope that dude doesn’t die right away when I finally decide to catch up on Game of Thrones — when we compare a screenshot from Sahadev Sharma’s video from spring training ($) to the home run against Jansen. Just look at how Almora’s left knee actually comes back far enough to eclipse part of his right leg as his foot comes several inches off the ground in the earlier shot. And though I wasn’t quite able to catch the apex in the more recent one, but we’re talking about maybe half an inch.
First things first, let’s acknowledge just how difficult it is to implement a swing change at all, let alone during the course of a season. He’s not exactly Jason Heyward or Addison Russell when it comes to tinkering, but Almora does have a history of tweaking his mechanics. Like LL Cool J pushing the EQ and playing connect the dots, Almora had a loud leg kick in the minors, then turned the volume way down before turning it back up this spring.
But what’s helped this season is that this wasn’t a complete overhaul. Since the kick is just a timing mechanism, Almora really just had to update his move for a quicker load. He’s still starting from the same open stance, though he’s now able to pounce on the ball with more authority.
To see the difference in real-time, let’s first examine this clip from an RBI single against the Brewers’ Corbin Burnes from April 6. The big righty piped a fastball middle-in and Almora rode it up the middle, but you can see how that big kick and stride requires everything to go right in order to get good results.
Now look at his swing on that Jansen cutter that hung out over the center of the plate. More than just how much quieter his is, pay attention to how Almora mimics Jansen’s trademark pause with one of his own. You can see each player’s left foot stop at the same time, then explode into motion in the opposite direction. Then you can see the ball explode in the opposite direction.
Now, I bet some of you are thinking: That’s great, Evan, but even blind dogs find bones now and then. And you’re right, this could just be a matter of Almora getting lucky over a stretch. Except luck doesn’t usually run for two weeks at a time, nor does it account for Almora hammering a Scherzer changeup 445 feet with 24 mph more velocity than it came in.
This wasn’t a mistake pitch, either. It was well in off the plate and Almora was able to wait back and absolutely destroy it. That’s a function of the reduced kick, since having his leg way up in the air likely would have left him much less able to adjust to the pitch.
All that said, it’s too early to say that Almora is “fixed” or whatever. That’s why the title is more than just a play on words, though the outfielder’s May performance does offer some pretty solid proof that he’ll be able to perform well enough at the plate moving forward to make him more than just a defensive replacement.
This is one of those situations in which the context of the stats really matters. It’s like looking at Kris Bryant‘s batted-ball profile and predicting an imminent breakout or seeing that Kyle Schwarber‘s approach should be leading to better run production. If Almora was just putting up better numbers, we might be able to attribute it to good fortune a hot streak.
But his BABIP hasn’t fluctuated wildly, going from .288 in the anemic sample discussed here to .325 in the more recent stretch. And even that higher mark lags behind his career .334 average coming into the season. So we can discard luck as a factor. Then you’ve got the very obvious change in his mechanics, which took place at some point in April and simply took some time to really take hold.
Perhaps the most telling signal of Almora’s improved timing is his swinging-strike trend. After posting a 12.6% whiff rate through May 4, he’s nearly halved it by putting up a mere 6.5% rate since. His in-zone contact rate has jumped to a freakish 97.6% (was 93) and his overall contact rate is 85.7% (76.6) as he’s cut down significantly on his overall swing percentage (from 53.9 to 45.6).
It’s all a function of the more controlled mechanics, as we discussed above. That big kick was a detriment to his pitch recognition, committing him to the swing earlier and forcing him to adjust on the fly rather than sitting back and getting those extra fractions of a second for his eyes and mind to tell his body what to do.
This is hardly a guarantee of anything to come, but Almora driving the ball with authority against righties and lefties alike is a potentially huge development for the Cubs’ offense.