Do you believe in love at first sight? I’m not talking about the hoary romantic convention of fairy tales and Hallmark movies, but of falling deeply for an athlete after seeing him make a single play. Or, in my case, seeing him fail to make the play.
It was a sweltering July evening in Jupiter, Florida, and the home team was down a run with two outs and a man on. The centerfielder was playing the right-handed batter to pull. Instead, the hitter laced a drive into the gap in right-center. As if fired from a pistol…no, that’s not quite right. His motion wasn’t sudden and explosive enough for that. It was more like the stream from a water pistol, pressurized to a high velocity but still fluid.
He glided across what should have been an impossible distance and dove to receive the ball into his outstretched glove. And then he felt it jarred loose by the force of his impact with the ground. Though he recovered quickly and held the batter to a double, a run scored and the game was forced into extra innings.
When he came in from the field at the conclusion of that 9th frame, the centerfielder threw his mitt in anger against the dugout wall and let loose a bilingual torrent of expletives. The video above doesn’t do it justice, but he had no business making that play. Even so, he was unwilling to accept that. He was unwilling to be anything less than perfect, and probably wanted to be even better.
And that’s when I fell in love with Albert Almora.
The 20-year-old would end up hitting for the cycle in the game I attended, a 13-8 Daytona Cubs win, but it was that play and his reaction to it that told me everything I needed to know. It’s easy to poke a little fun at Hawk Harrelson, but the will to win really is a desirable trait in a ballplayer. In Almora’s case, however, it’s perhaps better to call it the unwillingness to lose. That’s exactly what’s on display as Theo Epstein’s first Cubs draft pick, still a month shy of his 22nd birthday, shows the fans and his future teammates what they’ve got to look forward to.
Almora has only collected two hits thus far, both doubles, but it’s defense that has been and will be his ultimate calling card. He’s already made a pair of spectacular plays and has the vets taking notice.
“That was amazing,” Miguel Montero gushed after Sunday’s addition to the highlight reel. “I saw him make one of those last year in Double-A. It was a phenomenal catch.”
All in a day’s work for a kid who considers the phenomenal to be just another bullet-point in his job description.
“I want to help the team win and I know it’s hard offensively at times, but defensively, I feel like I should be perfect.
“I’m not happy if I don’t have a perfect season on defense, to be completely honest. I know it’s a crazy thing to say, but that’s just the way I am. I want to make pitchers happy.”
The pitchers aren’t going to be the only happy ones if Almora can continue to improve upon the offensive growth he showcased at Tennessee last season. After striking out 69 times and walking only 14 in 529 plate appearances in A-ball, he struck out only 46 times and drew 32 walks in 452 plate appearances with the Smokies.
A reduced leg kick has often been noted, but much of Almora’s improvement can also be chalked up to a refined approach, not to mention experience and maturity. But don’t let the increase in walks fool you, patience doesn’t equal passivity.
“I’m just being more aggressive, swinging harder and trying to get my pitch to hit so I could drive it,” Almora explained. If I strike out, I strike out, but I’m trying to hit the ball hard.”
The only other time I’ve gotten the chance to see Almora live was at Tennessee this past July, and that mentality was very evident. With the outfield playing him like they would a lefty pull hitter, Almora got his pitch and drove it into the gap in right-center, into the teeth of the shift. But for their positioning, it was a similar situation to that in Daytona. In this case, however, the outfielders could do little other than chase the vapor trail as the hitter cruised in to second with an easy double.
Good thing Almora wasn’t playing defense against himself. Had he been, he likely would have robbed himself of a hit by knowing where the ball was going to go. Not because he’d be both the hitter and the fielder in this paradox, but because he’s not just a great athlete who relies on pure instinct. Almora studies the tendencies of hitters and pitchers alike, combining information with intuition to find himself in the right place at the right time, time after time.
I’m sure Cyndi Lauper would agree that the best results come from a marriage of both numbers and knack, of stats and savvy.
Of course, anything Almora does in Phoenix this Spring is but a preview for a feature that won’t bow until 2017, or perhaps September at the earliest. Even had the Cubs not brought Dexter Fowler back, Almora was bound for more seasoning at AAA Iowa. But with Dex likely lost to free agency on a more permanent basis after this season, Epstein’s first pick might be ready for prime time.
The Cubs want to see the kid maintain his plate approach, but they know full well the glove plays. Even if he ends up as only a mediocre offensive talent, his defense alone makes him a viable Major Leaguer. And once Almora does get that call, he’s going to become an immediate fan favorite. That’s going to be a real problem for me, though, as I’m not sure how I’ll be able to reconcile it with my man-crush on Kyle Schwarber.
I guess I’ll just have to play the role of Jack Tripper in what I hope will be a long run of Three’s Company. The again, maybe Perfect Strangers would be more appropriate.
If you’d like even more on Albert Almora, Tony Andracki has been doing a fantastic job covering the Cubs in Cactus League action and he’s got a great piece over at CSN Chicago.