Albert Almora Jr. returned to the starting lineup Thursday, but his playing time has taken a nosedive with lefty-batting former All-Star Carlos González added to the outfield mix. The timing of that recent move has to be tough for Almora, who, after struggling with timing out of the gate, made some adjustments to his swing mechanics and was looking like the Cubs’ everyday center fielder.
Rather than keep Almora out there more consistently, Joe Maddon has shifted Jason Heyward over to accommodate CarGo. Even though the new guy was able to make a spectacular run-saving grab in his first game with the Cubs, that particular alignment represents a significant decrease in defensive acumen.
What’s more, Almora has been hitting right-handed pitching really well through the early part of the season. His .822 OPS and 110 wRC+ are much higher than the .571 and 47 he’s posted against lefties, and five of his seven homers have come against northpaws.
Those numbers improved in May as Almora’s approach yielded more power, but Maddon apparently didn’t see the production as much more than a mirage. Or at least that’s what he indicated prior to Tuesday’s game, the fourth straight in which Almora was not in the starting lineup.
“No warm and fuzzy,” the manager told the media. “We’re just trying to win games, and I’m trying to balance it out as well as we possibly can.”
While it makes sense that finding ways to win would be prioritized over just making someone feel good, Maddon’s explanation doesn’t really hold water.
“I still (think hitting left-handers) is his forte,” Maddon said. “He’s gotten better against righties. Still…it’s the proverbial small sample size.
“Albert has done better against righties. He’s really refined his approach there. He’s been a lot more patient. He’s chased fewer, hit homers right-on-right. He’s done a nice job of reinventing himself from the right side. But regardless of what that says, he hits lefties really well and I believe that.”
It’s not a full season by any stretch, but Almora’s 133 plate appearances against righties this season are enough to give us a pretty good idea that he’s improved. And this notion of simply going with a platoon based on batter handedness completely ignores the tendencies of the opposing pitcher.
Take the Rockies’ German Márquez, a righty who started Tuesday night against the Cubs. His wicked stuff actually plays better against left-handed hitters, who’d combined to slash just .138/.207/.225 against him away from Coors Field. Three Cubs lefties managed to rack up four hits and drive those numbers up, but CarGo carried none of that freight.
It’s entirely possible, likely even, that we’ll see the playing time even out as González slides back into more of the bench role to which his suited at this stage of his career. And Almora’s superior glove means he’ll continue to serve as a defensive replacement quite frequently, so he’ll keep picking up plate appearances that way.
And who knows, maybe Almora will continue to hit righties well while coming back around on his performance against lefties. That won’t be easy with irregular time, but he’s going to have to keep it up if he wants to maintain the reduced role in which he again finds himself.