Cubs

The Cubs have no intentions of finding more playing time for Albert Almora Jr.

The Cubs have no intentions of finding more playing time for Albert Almora Jr.

Why doesn't Albert Almora Jr. play more?

It's a common refrain from Cubs fans lately, especially with the 23-year-old outfielder in a middle of a hot stretch that saw him collect eight RBI in three at-bats this week.

Almora came in as a reserve in all three games against the New York Mets earlier in the homestand and went 4-for-5 with a double, a triple, a homer, eight RBI and three runs. 

Joe Maddon wrote Almora's name in Saturday's lineup against the St. Louis Cardinals, just his fourth start out of 15 games in September. He immediately made an impact, driving home the Cubs' first run in the fourth inning and igniting a two-run rally. He came through again in the fifth with a two-out RBI double and doubled again in the seventh as the Cubs cruised to a 4-1 victory.

The hot stretch helped push his overall season slash line to .299/.341/.442 (.784 OPS) in his first full year in the big leagues. Those numbers represent a bit of a jump from his minor-league line (.290/.322/.416 — .738 OPS).

Maddon has seen Almora's development in terms of using the whole field, being selectively aggressive and not missing his pitch. Almora swung at the first pitch each time up Saturday and had two hits to show for it.

"That was a really good matchup for Albert today and that's why we played him," Maddon said after the game.

So could Almora see more playing time over guys like Ian Happ, Jon Jay or Kyle Schwarber given his recent tear?

"Well, maybe he's doing so well because we're putting him in the right spots," Maddon explained. "There's always that thing, too. Happ had another big hit today; Happ's done really well. Jon Jay continues to do a lot of great things. Schwarber has gotta play also.

"Nice problem, trying to figure out the lineup every day. We'll try to make our best guesses on a daily basis and keep them all looking good and keeping them all fresh hopefully for the remainder of the season into the postseason. I love what he's doing."

All the talk about matchups is exactly why Almora isn't getting more playing time. Saturday marked the 10th straight right-handed starting pitcher the Cubs faced, dating back to Sep. 5 against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Almora isn't strictly a platoon player, but there is a pretty wide gap in his splits — .346 average, .919 OPS vs. southpaws and only a .270 AVG and .700 OPS vs. righties in 2017. And that's including the last week, where many of Almora's big hits have come against right-handers.

Saturday's start against the right-handed Michael Wacha came by virtue of Wacha's splits — the Cardinals right-hander is better vs. lefties (.645 OPS against) than righties (.754 OPS against).

"My confidence is always at an all-time high," Almora said. "It has to be in this game because this is a game of failure. Even on days you fail, I try to take the positive out of things. I try to learn every single at-bat.

"Joe has his reasons and I'm not complaining. I'm putting my head down and I'm going to work. Whenever I get a chance, just try to do my job."

Almora obviously would like to play more (he's on pace for just over 300 at-bats over the course of a full year in the big leagues), but his mentality is team first.

"Absolutely. I've always said, it's not about me, it's about the Chciago Cubs," Almora said. "And obviously we trust Joe to do whatever he's gotta do to put the best nine out there every day to win games. When I'm just given my opportunity, I'm just trying to go out there and help the team win.

"It's not in my control. I could go to bed killing myself thinking about what's going on, but nah, man, it's not about me. It's about the team winning games and we're doing it right now. We just gotta keep it going."

Almora also hasn't jumped off the page defensively the way many thought he would. In 584 innings in center this season, he's at -1 Defensive Runs Saved, according to FanGraphs, which is slightly below average. By comparison, Ian Happ has accrued +2 DRS in 330.1 innings in center and Jon Jay is at -4 in 302.1 innings. By Baseball Reference's metric, Almora has 0.0 defensive WAR this season, meaning he's been exactly average. 

Defensive metrics aren't end-all, be-all and there's still no truly perfect way to measure a player's value on defense, but the peripheral numbers don't point to a huge impact from Almora defensively.

The Cubs entered the 2017 season with a plan on platooning Jay and Almora in center field, with the occasional game for Jason Heyward there, moving over from right. But Maddon admitted Happ's emergence has changed things quite a bit and Almora's been the one who has seen more of a negative impact in playing time.

The Cubs are in the midst of a pennant race and Maddon has already said it's time for performance, not development, so the guys that are having success — like Tommy La Stella, for example — will see more playing time down the stretch.

That being said, the Cubs don't plan on carving out more playing time for Almora than he's had to this point. Happ and Jay will still see time in center field and the Cubs will still pick spots and play matchups to maximize Almora's talents.

"His confidence level's up right now," Maddon said. "He's been doing a great job. ... We've been able to match him up even more and right now, his success is very high. So when you look at it, I'm certain from his perspective, as a young player, he'd like to play more.

"But his time's coming to play more. What he's doing right now is really obviously benefitting himself. He's naking a nice name or mark for himself."

Small sample size: A look at Cubs' early-season statistical pace

Small sample size: A look at Cubs' early-season statistical pace

As the Cubs put the finishing touches on a sweep in Miami, they are now roughly 1/10 of the way through the 2019 season.

If they had their way, they obviously would've preferred to boast a better record than the current 8-9 mark through 17 games, but things are trending in the right direction for most of the club. (Playing a three-game set against the hapless Marlins will certainly help the good vibes.)

But since the Cubs got out to a 1-6 start, they've gone 7-3 and now have a +18 run differential, good for second in the Naional League.

That puts the Cubs on pace to win 76 games with a +171 run differential. For perpsective, the 2018 Cubs won 95 games with only a +116 run differential.

A lot can happen over the 90 percent of the season that remains and The Small Sample Size crowd is out in full force in April, as usual. By themselves, none of these stats really mean anything or tell us much beyond "Player X is off to a hot start" or "Pitcher Y is struggling." 

But that doesn't mean we should just ignore the stats and pace some players are on. Where's the fun in that? 

So let's take a look at some of the early-season stats surrounding the 2019 Cubs:

Javy Baez

El Mago has been red-hot of late, collecting 11 hits in his last 18 at-bats. That currently puts him on a season pace of:

229 hits, 143 runs, 48 doubles, 57 homers, 152 RBI

You can bet he'd finish near the top of NL MVP voting once again if he maintained that pace all year long. (However, he'd still probably lose to Christian Yelich, who picked up right where he left off last season and is currently on pace for 77 homers and 222 RBI. Seriously.)

Baez is the poster child for the small sample size claim. He was hitting just .232 with a .735 OPS as of Saturday morning, and his season pace would've looked a whole lot different had this article come out then. He's in the midst of an upswing, so these numbers are skewed. 

However, with the way he's driving the ball to the opposite field right now and turning singles into doubles, don't be surprised if he approaches the 83 extra-base hits he put up last year.

Willson Contreras

On pace for: 57 HR, 114 RBI, 86 BB, 143 K

...and that's in only 448 projected at-bats. 

Those would certainly be NL MVP caliber numbers from a guy some expected to challenge for the award after his blistering stretch in the middle of 2017. Contreras was so hot that he actually might've approached 30 homers and 100 RBI that year if he hadn't hurt his hamstring and missed a month.

If he stays healthy, his record-setting start to 2019 helps make those benchmarks seem like a possibility once again.

Contreras won't maintain his 1.224 OPS or .766 slugging percentage all season, but he looks like a completely different hitter than he was last year, when he hit just 7 homers in the first half and had only 10 all season.

Jason Heyward

On pace for: 38 HR, 105 RBI, 133 R, 95 BB, 57 K

To put those in perspective, here's Heyward's season average in each category during his first three years in a Cubs uniform: 

9 HR, 55 RBI, 62 R, 46 BB, 73 K

So even with a serious regression from his hot start, it wouldn't take much from Heyward the rest of the way to top his 2016-18 average stat line. 

The power is definitely eye-catching, but the walk-to-strikeout ratio is particularly noteworthy. His command of the strike zone is a huge reason why he's been able to hit .353 with a 1.052 OPS in the first 1/10 of the season.

Heyward has looked so good, he's now hitting fifth in the Cubs — a spot that once belonged to...

Kyle Schwarber

On pace for: 29 HR, 57 RBI, 48 BB, 181 K

Schwarber is in the midst of a tough stretch right now, so these numbers look off — especially the strikeouts (he's whiffed 12 times in his last 5 games). The power is still there, but the RBI total remains low and even the walks are suspiciously below his standards.

Schwarber has a career 13.4 percent walk rate and drew free passes at a 15.3 percent clip last year. This season, he's all the way down to 8.8 percent. 

Daniel Descalso 

On pace for: 86 RBI

Where is everybody who mocked the Descalso signing over the winter? In hiding right now, probably. 

The veteran has been exactly as advertised in the early going, with a professional and advanced approach at the plate. That includes a 7-for-12 mark with runners in scoring position (plus 4-for-7 with runners in scoring position and two outs). 

Descalso has been having some great at-bats, but there's no way those numbers will continue at their current pace all season. So don't bet on 85+ RBI, especially when he's only on track for 419 at-bats.

Ben Zobrist

On pace for: .379 OBP, 86 BB, 67 K, 48 R, 0 XBH

Zobrist turns 38 next month, but there's no way he suddenly lost all of his power. This is a guy who put up double digit homers every season from 2008 through 2017 before hitting only 9 last year. Age may be catching up to him a bit and sapping some of his slug, but he still hit 28 doubles last year in 455 at-bats.

He continues to keep his strikeouts and walks nearly even, as even with a 2-strikeout performance Wednesday night, Zobrist still has more free passes than whiffs this season. Between his 86-walk pace, the .379 OBP and the fact he spends most of his time in the leadoff spot in the Cubs order, it's surprising he's only scored 5 runs so far. That should change once Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo start heating up.

Speaking of...

Bryzzo

We don't need to worry about a pace for Bryant and Rizzo. Everybody knows they're struggling. 

This is the only stat you need to know:

Just wait until these guys start hitting. This Cubs offense is going to be a force to be reckoned with all year. (Unless, you know, they "break" in the second half again...)

Now, on to the run prevention...

Pitching stats are not as much fun to project out over a full season simply because they don't play every day and the small sample size carries even more weight (especially for relief pitchers). 

But here are a few fun pace stats for some Cubs arms:

—Cole Hamels is on pace for 29 wins and 0 losses.

—Jose Quintana is projected for 276 strikeouts in 200 innings. (His career high in whiffs was 207 in only 188.2 innings in 2017.)

—Jon Lester is on pace for only 29 starts, which would be the first time he failed to take the ball at least 30 times in a season since 2007.

—Brad Brach is on track for 95 walks in 67.2 innings. He's never walked more than 38 batters in a season (and that came in 79.1 innings in 2015). 

—Kyle Hendricks is ticketed for 133 runs allowed...but only 76 of those would be earned. The Cubs defense has done him no favors to begin the year.

—Pedro Strop is projected to lead the Cubs in saves with...10. He is the only Cubs pitcher to pick up a save through 17 games and he has just the 1 (from April 11 against the Pirates).

—Steve Cishek is on pace for only 67 appearances — a pretty big step down from the 80 games he pitched in a season ago.

—Brandon Kintzler is projected to give up only 58 baserunners in 76.2 innings (48 hits, 10 walks) while striking out 86 batters. He has never finished a season (in which he's made at least 10 appearances) with more strikeouts than innings pitched and his career-low WHIP was 1.065 in 2013, when he surrendered 82 baserunners in 77 innings.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Cubs easily on your device.

CubsTalk Podcast: Todd Hollandsworth gives an outside perspective

javy_hollandsworth_cubs_podcast.jpg
USA TODAY

CubsTalk Podcast: Todd Hollandsworth gives an outside perspective

Former Cubs TV analyst Todd Hollandsworth talks with Luke & Kap and gives an outside perspective on the 2019 Cubs.

—Holly talks about being in the the TV booth and on the road every day with the Marlins. (0:46)

—Todd shares his thoughts on the 2019 Cubs and how the team was built through the draft. (1:51)

—Holly breaks down Jose Quintana's recent run of great starts. He Also talks about Yu Darvish and if what we saw Monday was for real. (4:03)

—Todd talks about the N.L. Central. Draws similarities to the N.L. East. He says the Cubs still win the division - IF they pitch. (5:37)

—Holly shares his thoughts on former Marlin Christian Yelich and his dominant start to the 2019 season. (8:05)

—Todd talks about the "Yelich" trade and how the deal has worked out (so far) for the Marlins. (11:09)

—Holly discusses Javy Baez sliding into second base and the replay review system in MLB. Where do they go next? How can MLB fix the problem with aggressive base-running vs. being too cautious when sliding. (13:17)

 

Cubs Talk Podcast

Subscribe:

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Cubs easily on your device.