Albert Almora’s Inability to Walk

In 2012, the Chicago Cubs used the 6th overall draft pick to select Albert Almora, a high school outfielder from Miami. Almora was considered one of the top prospects in Chicago’s system and all of baseball entering 2014, ranking 36th on Baseball America’s Top 100, 28th on Keith Law’s Top 100, and 25th on Baseball Prospectus’s Top 101.

Almora struggled at the plate for a couple months in High-A this season before finally showing some brief improvement. This led to a promotion after just 89 games despite an OPS of .712. He performed even worse in Double-A, posting an OPS of .605 in the 36 games he played at the level. One of Almora’s most glaring flaws is his low walk rate—in 530 combined PA between the two levels at which he played this year, Almora walked just 14 times, a miniscule 2.6% of his plate appearances.

One explanation for Almora’s low walk rate is that his innate ability to make solid contact on most pitches prevents him from getting deep into counts and working walks. As Keith Law noted last offseason, “[Almora] has great hand-eye coordination that allows him to square up a lot of pitches, but has to learn to rein himself in and wait for a pitch he can drive to make full use of his hit and power tools — and if that means taking a few more walks, well, both he and the Cubs could use that right about now.”

We know that drawing walks is a good offensive skill to possess, but how problematic is it to be unable to do so? I wanted to better understand if it is possible for Almora to still have a successful major league career even if he is never able to overcome his inability to see ball four, and if so, how he might accomplish that.

I was a little surprised to find that out of all qualified major league hitters this year, the five lowest walk rates all belong to players who provided at least 2 WAR to their team, meaning they were at least average players. I examined how each player was able to do so despite posting a walk rate of 3.7% or lower.

Ben Revere owned the lowest walk rate in the MLB this year, coming in at 2.1%. Despite this, he was able to put up a respectable wRC+ of 92. Most of Revere’s offensive value comes from his ability to make contact (7.8% strikeout rate) and a high BABIP aided by his tremendous speed. He also provides a lot of value on the bases, where he is once again helped by his speed. While UZR hasn’t loved him in center field this year, he does play a premium position, and he has had better defensive numbers in the past. Revere mostly posted walk rates around 7-8% coming up through the minors, but his complete lack of power means that MLB pitchers are able to challenge him with strikes without having to worry about giving up extra-base hits. Revere has relied upon his speed to find success in the majors.

Adam Jones is the most successful of this bunch, posting a 5.4 WAR even with a walk rate of just 2.8%. Jones rates well in UZR this year and has won three Gold Gloves, but generally defensive metrics have not loved his defense, rating him below average in 2009-2013. Solid baserunning has helped Jones provide value to the Orioles, but his production mainly comes from his power, as he has a career ISO of .181. He has hit at least 25 home runs in each of the past four seasons, topping 30 twice. Jones’s power is his biggest asset and has allowed him to succeed, even with low walk rates and OBPs.

Salvador Perez posted a WAR of 3.3 in 2014, ranking him sixth among all catchers. Perez derives most of his value from two areas: his power and his plus defense at the most difficult position on the defensive spectrum. While the problems with measuring catcher defense have been well-noted, both stats and humans seem to agree that Perez is really good at it. On offense, his .148 career ISO has helped warrant a spot in the lineup, even while posting an OBP under .290 this year.

Next on the list is Alexei Ramirez. Ramirez’s greatest contributions come from playing an above average shortstop and running the bases well. He has put up solid, if unspectacular, offensive numbers thanks to good contact rates and decent power. Ramirez has been an average or above average player for five straight seasons even while walking only 4.4% of the time during that span.

The final player in this group is another Royal—Alcides Escobar, a shortstop known for his plus defense. His walk rates in the big leagues have mostly been around 3-4%, and his offensive production has fluctuated with his BABIP, as he relies on his average to carry his OBP. His strong defense at a premium defensive position and solid baserunning have provided enough value to keep him in the big leagues when his BABIP is low and to make him an average or above average player when it is high. 2014 was Escobar’s best season in the majors, but even when his offensive production is down, his defense and baserunning are able to make up for it enough to warrant a spot on a major league team.

Succeeding in the major leagues with a low walk rate is certainly possible, and these five players show there are multiple ways to do it. I think there are a few major takeaways from this exercise.

1) Players who rarely walk must get most of their value from defense and baserunning. All of these five players play a premium defensive position, allowing them to provide a lot of value on defense while requiring less of them at the plate. Most of them are also above average on the basepaths.

2) Players who rarely walk don’t necessarily have to be even an average offensive player, but they can’t be helpless either. They need to derive some sort of offensive value, whether it’s from hitting for power or making lots of contact and having a high BABIP to boost their OBP to a respectable level.

So where does this leave Almora? He checks off the first point, as most people seem to agree he is a plus defensive centerfielder, and although he’s not described as a burner on the basepaths, his instincts will likely allow him to be at least an average baserunner. At the plate, though, Almora still has a ways to go. While he doesn’t necessarily need to get his walk rate up a ton to be successful, he will have to find a way to provide more value than he has shown he can do this year.

It seems most likely that if Almora is to be a successful major leaguer, he will wind up in the Escobar/Ramirez mold—a player who makes plenty of contact and hits for a high average to support his OBP enough to keep him in a major league lineup while his defense accounts for most of his value. He still has a ways to go to reach even this level of competency at the plate, but he showed an ability to do it in the Midwest League in 2013, and he is still just 20 years old. 2014 was a step backward for Almora, and he’ll have to prove that he can provide some sort of offensive value if he wants to patrol centerfield on the north side, but he is not a lost cause and has the necessary skill set to succeed in the majors even with the impatience he has shown at the dish in his minor league career.

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I think Jones is the best upside scenario for Almora – he has the size to develop power (just turned 20), but he has to show the crazy plate coverage that guys like Jones, Beltre, and Vlad Guerrero to get by while walking so little. Easier said than done.