Could Tragic Foul Ball in Houston Be Cause of Almora’s Offensive Struggles?

You’ll be forgiven if you made it this far only because you wanted to hate-read after seeing the headline, but I’m glad you’re here just the same. Albert Almora Jr.’s struggles at the plate have been widely chronicled and his presence in important lineup spots has grown ever more questionable. But the sudden change from solid producer to league-worst hitter remain somewhat inexplicable. Or is it?

Those of you disinclined to put much stock in the mental side of the game may see it as mere correlation rather than causation, but Almora’s splits from before and after a foul off his bat injured a young fan in Houston are hard to ignore.

The mind is a complex and fickle machine, the workings of which can be irreparably damaged by otherwise innocuous events. And the event in question was obviously traumatic for Almora, who saw it all unfold and was powerless to do anything. He was visibly shaken at the time and may still be carrying guilt, especially after learning that the little girl suffered a fractured skull and brain contusion that led to ongoing seizures.

As Daniel Rathman tweeted Tuesday evening, Almora’s splits from before and after the events of May 29 are pretty stark. He went from a .259/.304/.443 slash with a 90 wRC+ and 40% pull rate to .213/.236/.303 with a 37 wRC+ and 27.5% pull rate. And with an 0-for-3 performance Tuesday night in San Francisco, he’s now less valuable than a replacement player (-0.1 fWAR).

As you may have already noted, that earlier split wasn’t all that special and certainly didn’t give reason to believe Almora was destined for a breakout season. But he had actually been improving, as evidenced by an .830 OPS and 109 wRC+ over the first four weeks of May after posting respective marks of .639 and 65 through April. That all came with a .275 BABIP that suggested he might even be in line for a boost from better luck.

Things have actually gone in the other direction, as indicated by a .240 BABIP since May 29 that sits 76 points below Almora’s career average. He’s hitting fewer grounders since that fateful game, normally a good thing, but his hard-hit percentage has dropped from 31.9 to 27.5 (league average is 38%) in addition to the drop in pull rate. That’s amounted to just two homers in his last 127 plate appearances after hitting six in the 96 PAs prior.

Perhaps most damning of all, Almora was lifted Tuesday night for a pinch hitter who’d earned only five previous plate appearances in the month of July and whose value to the team has been better when he remains on the bench. But Daniel Descalso drew a walk, so the switch worked. Moving Almora around in the lineup, however, has not.

The slumping outfielder had seen time in the leadoff spot, then was dropped back down to seventh for a couple games before being inexplicably placed in the heart of the order at the five-hole to face Madison Bumgarner. That’s probably Joe Maddon trying to shake something loose and get Almora back in line with those May numbers, but it doesn’t seem to be working.

Because his plate approach is never going to yield big OBP and his power is decent at best, Almora needs to make the most of his contact skills. Which means picking out pitches he can really do something with and finding gaps. However, his ability to put the bat on the ball can actually work against him if his eye at the plate is a little less discerning.

Almora has seen fewer pitches in the zone this season than in previous years, but his contact percentages in and out of the zone are higher than in either of the last two seasons. That has led to him walking less (4.3%) than in either 2017 (5.9%) or ’18 (5.0%), which isn’t great when he didn’t have any leeway in that category to begin with.

Again, the foul ball in Houston and Almora’s subsequent downturn may be purely coincidental, just a landmark that had nothing to do with what may have been inevitable regression. Except that the eye test says Almora hasn’t looked right over the last couple months, almost like a guy who overslept and then had to skip his morning coffee. Or maybe like he went bold and doubled up on the caffeine to make up his tiredness.

Given how quickly and chronically a player’s mental state can impact his play on the field, it’s not at all unreasonable to believe that foul ball is still haunting Almora. Whether and to what extent that is the case we will never really know, but the key is how he’s able to process through it and move past it. Not that he can or should forget it, mind you, just that he needs to let that baggage go if he’s still carrying it.

All Almora has to be for this team is a league-average hitter, even a little less, and that’s what he was through most of May. But since then he’s fallen to a level that even his stellar defense can’t offset. That has to improve if he’s going to keep getting meaningful playing time down the stretch, unless trades relegate him to a true bench role.

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