Over the last two seasons, the Chicago Cubs outfield has been crowded with the likes of Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward as mainstays.
Since Dexter Fowler‘s departure from the Chicago Cubs after 2016, centerfield has been a combination of either Ian Happ, Albert Almora Jr., Jason Heyward, and let’s not forget former Cubs outfielder Jon Jay.
Last season it was a battle between Almora, Heyward and Happ in center field. Most days if the Cubs were facing a left-handed starter, Almora would get the start in center, and if the starter were a righty, Happ would start in center. Heyward is much more suited in right field, but he got his share of starts in center, too.
With Happ’s struggles this spring ending with his demotion to Triple-A, it gave Almora his opportunity to take full control of the center field starting spot. It started rocky as Almora struggled mightily in April. His slash line was .192/.263/.192 through April 24. His ground ball rate was at an alarming 60.5 percent compared to his 27.9 percent fly ball rate. When your hard contact percentage is only 25 percent during that span, the overall production is likely not great.
Though, since the rubber match against the Los Angeles Dodgers on April 25, Almora has been one of the Cubs best hitters. Almora scored the lone run for the Cubs in that game, hitting his first home run of the season in a 2-1 loss at Wrigley Field.
Almora has a .347/.364/.600 slash line since and now has four home runs on the season. He’s started in all but four of the Cubs games since during this current stretch.
It comes at a perfect time when the Cubs have hitters generally at the bottom of their lineup struggling such as Daniel Descalso and Heyward. Javier Baez will miss his second straight contest Tuesday night due to injury, and Ben Zobrist is still out due to personal reasons. When injuries or slumps are part of the game, you love to see other players pick up their game to help the team stay afloat as the Cubs have in this instance.
What’s changed for Almora? His batting stance is much different compared to in Spring Training. That’s likely the biggest factor you could credit that changed in his progression going into his swing that led to his success, but how about the consistent playing time?
Almora has started in center field in all but four games since April 25, leading to more at-bats and a daily routine.
Despite his ground ball rate still north of 50 percent, his hard contact rate is up to 36.5 percent, meaning he’s hitting ground balls into spots where defenders aren’t at more often than not at a much harder pace.
He enters Tuesday’s game against Philadelphia with a .277/.314/.423 slash line for the season. The Cubs would like to see his on-base percentage at a higher clip, but as long as he’s hitting, I’m sure the Cubs won’t have any complaints.
After all, despite a 4.3 percent walk percentage, his strikeout rate is at 16.3 percent.
We saw his hot streak at the beginning of last season, so I’m not sure what the future holds. But as of right now, the Chicago Cubs have no choice but to play him with Happ still in Iowa, Zobrist out and Mark Zagunis getting little to no playing time. The Cubs can move Kris Bryant to one of the corner outfield spots and move Heyward to center too if they want to give Almora an off day as well.
But why do that when Almora is a human highlight reel defensively in center field, too?