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 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.
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
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
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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