Losing Dexter Fowler to free agency created a hole in center field, where Fowler roamed for two seasons. Many thought that Albert Almora Jr, the Chicago Cubs’ homegrown rookie, would naturally slide in to take the spot.
Cubs’ brass had other ideas. Chicago inked Jon Jay to a one-year deal, feeling Almora wasn’t quite ready to start. This gives the team a bridge to Almora potentially taking over in 2018.
Upon a closer look, the combination of his progress and defensive prowess make one thing clear. Now is the time to make Almora this team’s starting center fielder.
First let’s look at offense. Almora hit well in limited at-bats last season, slashing .277/.308/.455 while showing surprising power with a .179 ISO (SLG-AVG). This season he’s showing that it wasn’t a fluke.
So far he’s hitting .272/.330/.407 while showing more patience at the plate, as evident by his increased OBP and walk rate. He’s also making better decisions at the plate:
Above are some of Almora’s plate discipline stats, courtesy of Fangraphs. As you can see, his O-Swing% (percent of swings that are outside the strike zone) is way down from last year. Furthermore, he’s swinging at more pitches in the strike zone (Z-Swing%) while also swinging less, which if sustained should lead to more walks and less strike outs.
Jay is by no means having a bad offensive season. In fact, in many ways he’s having a better one than Almora. Defensive upside on the latter’s part however is a big reason why Jay should get less reps in center.
Even though Almora’s defense in center field has surprisingly been below-average this season, don’t let that fool you. Most advanced metrics favor players with large sample sizes, and being that Almora’s been platooning with others the numbers will surely go up as the season goes along.
Since Jay has more than 100 less innings in center than Almora, it’s imperative to scale the stats appropriately when comparing the two. By using UZR/150, which proportions ultimate zone rating into 150 games, we can see that not only is Almora a better defender, but Jay is actually the fifth-worst in baseball with at least 70 innings in the stat.
Subpar metrics aside, Almora is still making plays. He’s one of only six players with at least 180 innings in center to have a perfect fielding percentage on plays that are at least 40 percent likely to be caught. Compare that to Jay’s 83 percent on those same plays and it’s clear that Almora is the better option.
And let’s not forget Almora’s tendency to make plays that’ll make your jaw drop, like his game-saving HR rob against St. Louis and two incredibly difficult catches on the warning track against the Dodgers.
The thing is you can’t go wrong with either Almora or Jay at this point, as both are having good seasons. However, the former’s special defensive ability plus increased patience merits more playing time.
As Jay nurses a bad back, Almora will have the chance to show what he can do playing everyday. When Jay comes back he’ll certainly be a great spot starter/role player, but Almora deserves the starting job.