Albert Almora Jr.

Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.’s scary foul ball incident, one year later

Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.’s scary foul ball incident, one year later

A year ago Friday, a foul ball off the bat of Cubs center fielder Albert Almora Jr. struck a young girl in the stands at Minute Maid Park in Houston.

The young girl was rushed to the hospital and her family later revealed she suffered several head injuries as a result. The moment brought forth league-wide changes to protect fans from injury. 

One year later, here is a timeline of key dates in the fallout from the incident.

Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.'s scary foul ball incident

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How Cubs' Albert Almora Jr. regrouped after emotionally trying 2019 season

How Cubs' Albert Almora Jr. regrouped after emotionally trying 2019 season

Among the more interesting Cubs storylines sidelined with the rest of baseball during the coronavirus shutdown was the career restart center fielder Albert Almora Jr. seemed to promise after an emotionally trying 2019 season.

A tumultuous, wrenching 2019 season unlike any he had ever experienced in his baseball life.

“That’s a fact,” Almora said after a strong start in spring games, and just before professional sports across the country were shut down indefinitely in March.

Friday marks the one-year anniversary of the harrowing night in Houston when Almora’s foul ball struck a young girl in the head, an incident that caused serious, lingering injuries, resulted in league-wide action to better protect fans and that in the moment dropped Almora to a knee, shaken and in tears.

TIMELINE: Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.'s scary foul ball incident

It was the most emotionally fraught moment in a Cubs season that was otherwise filled with competitive extremes that finished on a low note, off-the-field drama that finished with the release of a former All-Star shortstop and failed expectations that finished with the manager getting fired.

What followed for Almora was his worst performance as a baseball player, including a .215 average and .570 OPS the rest of the season, and a two-week demotion to the minors in August.

Almora has repeatedly denied his performance was impacted by that moment in Houston.

“No,” he said again this spring. “That’s an excuse.”

But the father of two young kids won’t deny that “it definitely impacted me.”

What’s certain is that by the time he returned to the team this spring, he had a new, quieter swing and a renewed mindset that had him in what he called a better place mentally.

A strong inner circle of friends and loved ones were part of the reset, he said, and in particular “just me listening and opening up to new advice.”

Almora, of course, did nothing wrong, and there was nothing he could have done to prevent the horrible moment — like so many other players and fans and similar moments at games that came before that one.

And while that knowledge won’t eliminate the emotions that might linger, one valuable outcome of the incident was near immediate action by the White Sox and Nationals to extend their protective netting to the foul poles at their ballparks — and MLB announcing in December all teams would expand protective netting by the start of the 2020 season.

Almora’s response, meanwhile, has been about just that — focusing on his response to the way his performance fell short last year, on the things he could change to regroup and restart a career that seemed on the rise until 2019.

“I’m glad [the struggles] happened,” he said. “You have to grow from things like that. You have two options: You can fold and let it beat you, or you learn from it and grow.

“I’m fortunate I had good people around me that gave me an easier chance to just turn the page, man. You hear that phrase a lot in this game: Turn the page, turn the page. But it’s hard. It’s hard when you’re constantly failing and constantly not performing the way you know you can and letting your guys down …

“It was tough,” he added. “And it’s not figured out. No one here figures it out. But you do the things you can control. … I’m in a good mental spot right now, and that’s all I can really ask for.”

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Cubs 2020 roster outlook: Albert Almora Jr. looking to rebound behind new swing

Cubs 2020 roster outlook: Albert Almora Jr. looking to rebound behind new swing

Each day in March, NBC Sports Chicago is previewing one player from the Cubs’ expected 2020 Opening Day roster. Next up is center fielder Albert Almora Jr.

2019 recap

2019 was a trying year for Almora. He admitted last month he wasn’t in a good place mentally, citing his personal on-field struggles and the Cubs’ collectively as a team.

In 130 games, Almora hit .236/.271/.381 with a 64 wRC+, all career lows. His defense in center field — long his calling card — took a step back; the 25-year-old sported a -5 Defensive Runs Saved and 3 Outs Above Average, down from 10 and 11 a season prior.

Above all that, Almora tragically struck a young girl in the stands with a foul ball during a game against the Astros last May. The girl was rushed to the hospital, and — as we learned later — sustained a permanent brain injury.

Almora, a father of two, says the heartbreaking moment impacted him, but he won’t use it as an excuse for his on-field struggles. He’s human, so we know the two are at least somewhat related, however. We can also point to some of his tendencies that limited him at the plate.

In the day and age of shifting, Almora's groundball rate (53.1 percent) was far too high, as was his soft contact rate (23.9 percent). That’s a recipe for disaster and Almora didn’t make up for it by drawing many free passes (4.4 percent walk rate — again, poor). He also averaged 3.66 pitches/plate appearance (league average is 3.93, per 600 PAs).

You can be successful with an aggressive approach (see: Baez, Javy) but Almora wasn’t making enough quality contact, plain and simple.

Expectations for this season’s role

Almora and Ian Happ will split time in center field this season, with manager David Ross mixing-and-matching the duo to maximize the Cubs' offense. The position was a weak spot last season; Cubs center fielders combined to post a .232/.305/.388 slash line — second-lowest amongst all positions on the team.

2020 outlook

Take spring training numbers lightly, but Almora’s hitting .381/.435/.714 with two home runs in eight games. He changed his swing, now standing more upright in the batter’s box to start. His stance is less open, and he features a reduced leg kick and less front leg rotation as he loads up to swing.

These changes could help him fight off tough pitches better, while also maximizing the damage he does on mistakes. With the reduced movement, he’s more direct to the ball and has increased time to react.

With Happ in the picture, Almora will receive the bulk of his starts against lefties. Historically, he's fared well against them, but last year was a different story.

Almora vs. lefties

  2016-18 2019
AVG .309 .213
OBP .360 .254
SLG .456 .278
BB% 7.4 4.4
K% 12.2 18.4

Improving internally is the poster child for the 2020 Cubs, and Almora returning to form against lefties is a big part of that. Historically, he's been under average against righties, and with last season's struggles against southpaws, it was hard to find playing time for him. This especially was true after Nick Castellanos came aboard — the Cubs acquired him at the trade deadline in part because of Almora's issues at the plate.

The Cubs don't need Almora to hit like Castellanos did last summer. Getting back to his 2016-18 level would lengthen the lineup, and his contact-oriented approach will help move the ball around with runners on base. 

It's important to note the mental side of things cannot be understated, and Almora spent the offseason decompressing and leaning on his loved ones for support.

He's in a better place now than last September, and combined with his new approach, there's hope for a better performance in 2020.

The complete roster outlook series:

1. Cubs hoping Kris Bryant stabilizes leadoff spot in 2020
2. Kyle Hendricks is a steady force in the Cubs' rotation
3. Kyle Schwarber is primed for a breakout 2020 season
4. Tyler Chatwood has chance to rewrite the script in 2020
5. David Bote searching for more offensive consistency in 2020
6. One pitch could hold key to Jose Quintana's 2020 success

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