Albert Almora Jr.

Albert Almora leaning on perspective to push through struggles

Albert Almora leaning on perspective to push through struggles

These are commonly called the dog days of summer, and after having played through roughly two-thirds of the season, especially so for baseball players. For Albert Almora, Jr. batting fifth in Wednesday's lineup, this tough stretch of the year has been made even tougher thanks to a prolonged slump.

Almora is hitting just barely above .200 over the last thirty days. August has been even worse, at .185 going in to Wednesday's game against the Brewers. But despite these struggles, Almora is working to keep it all in perspective so that he can turn things around.

"The mental grind of it is obviously overwhelming at times, but if you’re struggling a little bit or seem not to be having a lot of luck, you just think of the positives day in and day out of what you go through," Almora said.

Admitting that this is sometimes easier said than done, Almora said that it helps being on a team that does a very good job of turning the page when things go badly. 

A big help in not letting his struggles at the plate weigh on him too heavily, Almora said, has been his family. Almora and his wife Krystal have a son, AJ, who was born late in the 2016 season, and she is pregnant with their second child. A health scare for her took Almora away from the team for a couple of days in mid-July. Thankfully all turned out well, but it's the kind of thing that puts anyone's life into perspective.

"You rely on family. Obviously my son’s a big part. He’s at a point where he just wants to play with Dad, and we have a lot of fun," Almora said. "He doesn’t really care, and that puts it into perspective for me. I go home, at the end of the day it’s just a game."

All the same, the task of preparing day in and day out and trying to stay productive in the midst of a period of struggle isn't easy when the hard contact he's making lands in gloves rather than grass or among the bleacher faithful. 

"You always try to think about it as a game," Almora said. "This is a game we’ve been playing since we were kids, but it does get away from you at times. You press for a little bit, so it does wear on you a little bit if you aren’t doing what you’re supposed to."

But there are positive signs for Almora. After striking out in a pinch-hit appearance on Tuesday, he drew two walks and hit a homer the next day. And whether the slump continues or not, he hasn't lost faith in himself.

"I have confidence in myself that I’m pretty good at this," Almora said. "And I’ll be alright."

As Addison Russell's up-and-down season continues, how much of a concern is his hand?

As Addison Russell's up-and-down season continues, how much of a concern is his hand?

As Addison Russell's up-and-down season continues, it begs the question: How much concern is there about the shortstop's finger/hand issue?

He's been dealing with the injury on his left hand for the last couple months and while it hasn't had much of an impact on his play at shortstop, it has affected his swing.

During the weekend homestand against the Padres, Russell shrugged it off, saying his hand felt the best it has in a while and he believes he's gotten better at managing the issue.

But for a guy who hit 21 homers and drove in 95 runs two years ago, his 2018 pace of 7 homers and 53 RBI is noticeably light. 

Is that because of the hand?

"His defense is as good as I've seen it," Joe Maddon said. "He's throwing the ball better than I've ever seen him throw the baseball. Defensively — top of his game. 

"Offensively, using the other side of the field more consistently well. Power-wise, we're not seeing the same pop we saw a couple years ago and it could be because of his hand right now.

"...Maybe not the consistency we saw a couple years ago, but I know it's still in there. He's still strong. He doesn't lead on about his hand and how much it may be bothering him, but I know it is."

Russell entered Sunday's game carrying a modest five-game hitting streak and Maddon opted to let the shortstop hit cleanup while Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward all had the day off. It made sense, as Russell is a .300 hitter with an .800+ OPS against left-handed pitchers. 

Russell finished 0-for-4, but he was twice robbed of a hit by San Diego shortstop Freddy Galvis, and both times would've driven in a run for the Cubs with two outs. Maddon was pleased with Russell shooting a 98mph pitch into the right-centerfield gap in Pittsburgh and took that as a sign that maybe the 24-year-old is coming out of his slump.

Earlier this year, it looked as if Russell was taking major strides as an offensive player, even despite the low power output.

From April 29 to July 3, Russell slashed .318/.381/.468 (.850 OPS) in 195 plate appearances across 51 games. All 5 of his home runs and 25 of his 36 season RBI came during that stretch.

But the bookends of that two-month run are troublesome. 

From Opening Day to April 29, Russell hit .215 with a .582 OPS. From July 4 up through Sunday, he was hitting .202 with a .531 OPS. 

These aren't small sample sizes. These are 24- and 25-game stretches — a full month of action. That qualifies as a prolonged slump.

Entering the 2018 season, Russell was among the players the Cubs hoped would take a big step forward in their development.

But while Javy Baez, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. have ascended, Russell is still riding the offensive roller coaster.

"He's fine," Joe Maddon said. "His swing is not where it wants to be 100 percent, but the rest of his game, I'm kind of liking right now. I want to be proactive in resting him with all the little maladies he's got going on.

"I just want to keep giving him periodic rest, to make sure that the hand doesn't become an issue. And it's not. But otherwise, I think most of his game is actually getting better."

Maddon is right — Russell has taken the rest of his game to the next level, even with the hand injury.

He's taken some flak over the last week for his baserunning after he was thrown out at third base in Pittsburgh and then did not tag up and score on a tough pop-up Friday at Wrigley Field.

But he actually rates as the 9th-best baserunner in the entire game by FanGraphs' metric, just behind his teammate Javy Baez (6th) and ahead of guys like Mike Trout (10th), Mookie Betts (13th) and Dee Gordon (16th). 

Russell also ranks 9th in all of baseball (regardless of position) in Defensive Runs Saved. Among shortstops, Russell is tied with Francisco Lindor for 3rd behind Andrelton Simmons and Nick Ahmed in DRS. Among 13 qualified NL shortstops, Russell has the 5th-highest WAR (2.0).

The postseason is still almost two months away, but as it stands right now, Russell is going to be a big part of what the Cubs do in October.

His presence at shortstop allows Baez to stay at second base and create maybe the best up-the-middle defense in baseball.

But at this point, Russell is a big question mark at the plate, both in terms of production and health.

Grinding it out, working as a team: The story of the Cubs

cubsteam.png
USA TODAY

Grinding it out, working as a team: The story of the Cubs

Five times in franchise history. That’s how often the Chicago Cubs have owned the best record in the National League heading into the All-Star game. This is the first time since 2008.

Here’s what makes it even more surprising.

They’ve been doing it without Kris Bryant for long periods of time. He’s missed roughly one quarter of the Cubs’ games. Bryant’s injuries have forced him to sit out 23 games and the 2016 National League MVP has just 10 home runs. How many teams could lose a player of that caliber and still be elite? Not many.

They’ve also found a way to the top with the other half of the Bryzzo Souvenir Co. going through multiple slumps during the first 93 games of the season. According to the advanced metric of “Weighted Runs Created Plus," Anthony Rizzo has been human at the plate. Rizzo’s wRC+ rating of 100 is exactly the league average. Last year at this time his wRC+ was 31 percent better than the league average. His current WAR is just 0.2.

Don’t get me wrong, Rizzo and Bryant have still made an impact and both have shown signs that their stocks for the second half should by on “buy now” list.

So, the Cubs’ 1-2 punch has been off their game and it’s not their biggest struggle in the so-called first half. That dubious honor belongs to the starting rotation. Their two offseason additions have been disasters. Yu Darvish hasn’t pitched and Tyler Chatwood hasn’t thrown strikes.

By this point, you’re wondering how the Cubs aren’t in 4th place? Well, for those three issues there have been just as many answers from different places. Maybe more.

In the outfield, Albert Almora’s .319 batting average ranks third in the NL and he simply seems to catch everything. Jason Heyward. Who saw this coming? He’s delivering at the plate on a regular basis. In 2016, Heyward’s wRC+ was 29 percent worse than the league average. This year, he’s climbed to a 109 rating or nine percent above average. He also catches everything. Combine those two with Kyle Schwarber’s 17 bombs and his massive defensive improvements and you have an impactful outfield. Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist have done their parts too.

Speaking of Happ, the Cubs have eight players with at least a .340 on-base percentage. Happ needs just eight more plate appearances to be the ninth Cubs’ batter on that list.

All major factors, but the biggest reason the Cubs are atop the NL despite all this adversity is “The Javy Baez Show”. El Mago has done it with his glove, his baserunning, his defense, his energy and his bat. Baez is the first player in MLB history with 18 doubles, six triples, 18 home runs and 18 stolen bases before the All-Star break.

So, how have the Cubs reached this place for the just the fifth time in franchise history? They’ve done it by grinding it out. They’ve done it as a team. Two traits that should serve them well the rest of the way. #EverybodyIn.