Key to Almora's offensive turnaround? Patience

May 26th, 2019

CHICAGO -- As rounded third base on Saturday afternoon, following an opposite-field home run to the right-field bleachers in the second inning, the Cubs outfielder quickly pointed to the home dugout. He later said it was a show of appreciation for Cubs hitting coach Anthony Iapoce.

"I was pointing to our hitting coach," Almora said. "We had talked a little bit before the game. It hit home, what he said."

Almora would not say what words of wisdom were shared. On Sunday morning, Iapoce joked that Almora was probably actually pointing to Cubs manager Joe Maddon or assistant hitting coach Terrmel Sledge. The Cubs' hitting coach also opted against saying what he talked about with the outfielder before Saturday's game.

"Nothing," Iapoce said with a smirk. "Players make up stuff."

Neither Almora nor Iapoce want to discuss their conversation, but there is more to the center fielder's improvement than some pregame epiphany. Almora's offensive production has been trending up for the past several weeks, helping the center fielder graduate from a platoon situation to a regular spot in Chicago's lineup.

Almora, who initially was not scheduled to play in Sunday's 10-2 loss but entered the game as a replacement for Kris Bryant in the sixth, hit at a .312 clip with a .921 OPS in 27 games between April 25 and Saturday. In that stretch, he had six home runs in 100 plate appearances (after having five homers in 479 PAs in all of the 2018 season). Through April 24, Almora was batting .182 with a .432 OPS and hitting ground balls at a 60.9 percent rate. He was also pulling the ball 42.5 percent of the time in that early period.

What has been the difference, in Maddon's eyes?

"More patience," said the manager. "He's swinging at better pitches, swinging at pitches that he's better able to handle."

To that end, Almora has turned in a .458 slugging percentage against breaking and offspeed pitches between April 25 and Saturday, after having a .091 slugging against those pitches earlier in the season. In that span, he also hit .400 with a .711 slugging percentage against fastballs, while decreasing his overall pull rate to 39.2 percent. Almora's improved pitch selection has led to a more up-the-middle approach at the plate.

Along the way, Almora has also performed better against right-handers (.818 OPS in 112 PAs entering Sunday) than lefties (.565 OPS in 49 PAs).

"I don't think it was something before the game," Iapoce said, "because he's been pretty good his last 100 at-bats. I think it's a matter of him playing every day, being the hitter he is. I mean, this is a .285 career Major League hitter. So, it doesn't surprise me at all with him hitting and getting the hits the way that he is. It's just believing that you can do it every day, that's the big thing. Confidence is big with every hitter, but especially with Albert.”

Worth noting

• Given the state of the bullpen, the Cubs needed length from Yu Darvish on Saturday and he provided, albeit with an unusual line of six runs allowed on 12 hits in seven innings. No Cubs pitcher has had a line of those numbers or higher since Carlos Zambrano on Aug. 14, 2007, and it had only occurred twice in the previous five seasons in MLB.

"You might see it back in the day in the ‘60s and in the early ‘70s maybe," Maddon said, "a pitcher that had gone that many innings, given up that many hits and runs and still was in the ballgame. It doesn't happen. I did focus on that. It was kind of interesting right now. Obviously, yesterday was based on need. But give Yu credit, because if he doesn't do that, we don't win that game because we didn't have enough to cover yesterday."

• The Cubs went with an NBA theme for their travel attire for the upcoming trip to Houston. Kyle Schwarber arrived at the ballpark in an Indiana Hoosiers uniform complete with the red-and-white striped warm-up pants. Almora wore a Dwyane Wade Miami Heat uniform. Jason Heyward had a No. 45 Michael Jordan jersey. Jon Lester donned a Penny Hardaway Orlando Magic top. Kris Bryant went with a Space Jam uniform.

"I've got Mr. Maravich," said Maddon, referring to "Pistol Pete" Maravich. "Mid-’70s Atlanta Hawks. Mr. Maravich, from Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. LSU. I read the book. If you ever watch any old videos of him ball handling, it's purely incredible stuff. It's tragic the way he passed. But, one of the more interesting basketball players ever. The stuff he could do on the court was unparalleled."

• Cubs reliever Pedro Strop arrived at Wrigley Field in a full Golden State Warriors uniform on Sunday, indicating that he planned on traveling with the team to Houston. Strop (on the 10-day injured list with a left hamstring issue) threw a bullpen session on Saturday with no issues. The Cubs will determine this week if he needs a Minor League rehab assignment before being activated.