Ian Happ versus Albert Almora: The Cubs’ Center Field Conundrum

Maybe this position battle is more clear than it seems.

Photo By Keith Allison Via Flickr

As Spring Training baseball continues to roll on, we get a better look at each and every player. The Chicago Cubs enter the 2018 spring with what appears to be 7 positions already locked down. That number jumps up to 8 if the pitcher is taken into account. That leaves one position on the diamond left uncertain. Center Field.

Often times we hear about uncertainty within teams, and it tends to reflect a negative mindset among readers and fans. Uncertainty can be scary. Maybe your favorite team doesn’t have a good option for a particular position. They might be forced to choose between the lesser of two evils per say, or two average players that neither of who, get you excited about how they can contribute to your ball club this season. For the Cubs and Center Field, that is not the case.

Albert Almora Jr. and Ian happ are both very intriguing players to start in CF. It is almost a given that they will be a part of some type of platoon, but what if one player had to play everyday? Who would you want trotting out towards that large green manual scoreboard each and every game?

Almora Jr. and Happ represent two of the successful first round picks that Theo Epstein and co. have drafted since coming to town in October of 2011. Almora was drafted 6th overall in 2012, Theo’s first draft with the organization. Happ on the other hand, was drafted 9th overall in the 2015 MLB Amateur Draft. Both are players who started with high expectations, but now have positioned themselves for more playing time.

With Kyle Schwarber’s newly established body in LF and Jason Heyward in RF, neither one of those spots appear open at the moment. With Schwarber, the Cubs hope to see a big bounce back, while Heyward hopes to re-establish himself at the plate with the help of new Hitting Coach Chili Davis. It is very possible that either or both of these guys could struggle, but what if they don’t? If Schwarber can hit lefties and play slightly above average LF, he’ll be much too valuable to have on the bench for very many games. For Heyward, if he can manage to hit somewhere in the .260’s or ideally higher, there won’t be much room to get him out of the lineup. Happ can play second base, but with Baez there, and Zobrist backing up, that doesn’t appear to present many opportunities either.

That leaves center field. Taking a look back at 2018, Almora Jr. had a slash line of .298/.338/.445 and a wRC+ of 103 in 132 games, while Happ displayed a .253/.328/.514 and a wRC+ of 113 in 115 games played. Now let’s take a look at a chart breaking down some of their other numbers.

2017 Offensive Metrics:

From the selected values shown, two things are clear. Happ was a better hitter than Almora in 2017, and Happ needs to strikeout less in 2018. As for some of the other numbers, Happ walking more than Almora is a big advantage, and will continue to be a big key for future success of him. For Almora, his K% was excellent, but his BABIP has me greatly concerned. Typically, the MLB average is somewhere around .300, with Almora posting a BABIP that was 38 points higher than that. His high batting average in 2017 was likely a result of his BABIP being high. I’d like to credit it to him hitting the ball hard and finding the holes, but I don’t know if it sustainable. If his BABIP drops in 2018, I don’t know what his average will look like, and more importantly, his OBP. Ideally, his BABIP stays high, and with him being a singles hitter primarily, it definitely could, but that remains to be seen.

Looking more into Happ, everyone is concerned with his high number of PA’s that end in a strikeout. This is understandable. Striking out almost ⅓ of the time is not ideal for anyone, let alone a guy competing against another very solid player for playing time. One thing I want to note: Kris Bryant in 151 games as rookie, struck out 30.6 % of the time. Happ struck out 0.6% of the time more than KB did. In 2016, Bryant dropped that number to 22.0% and then again dropped it to 19.8% in 2017. In each season, Bryant dropped his K% and saw his BB% rise. While Happ is certainly no Kris Bryant, and shouldn’t expect such large margins of increase, there’s no reason he can’t make strides in 2018. If Happ can even drop his K% about 4–5 percent, it would be huge. More than likely, his walk rate would increase, and his batting average and on base percentage would shoot up as well. There’s no guarantee Happ will make the necessary adjustments to strikeout less, but one thing is clear: the dude can rake when he puts the bat on the ball. He’s got great power from BOTH sides of the plate, and finds gaps. I expect to see Happ’s name come across my twitter feed several times this season from @MLBBarrelAlert. Happ is certainly poised for a big season in year two.

The other side of this position battle I wanted to discuss was their defense. Albert Almora has had a reputation as being an excellent defender in center field. Often times, in both postseasons he was a part of, he entered the game late as a defensive replacement. In my opinion, AAJ is an excellent center fielder. My issue is the lack of respect that Ian Happ garners out there. The argument for Almora to be in the lineup everyday, is by much account, for his defense. I took a look at two defensive metrics to compare them in 2017, looking at only their time spent playing Center Field.

2017 Defensive Metrics CF:

Wow. It’s obvious that Almora played significantly more innings in CF than Happ did, but the other two stats displayed above do not lie. Happ was simply a better defender in Center Field than Albert Almora Jr. was during the 2017 season. I don’t credit that to the inning differential either, as most elite defensive players are able to increase their DRS as they play more and more innings. I was actually quite surprised that Almora’s numbers were such, but there is still no doubt in anyone’s mind that AAJ is a good outfielder. The only thing with Happ is, he’s faster and has a better arm. AAJ is known for excellent routes, but in comparison to Happ, all things considered, Happ was better in 2017 and might only get better. This is of great importance for the 2018 season. Almora might still be the better defender, but the stats for 2017 certainly told a different story.

After looking at the statistics, one thing is becoming clear. Ian Happ was a better player than Albert Almora Jr. in 2017 and should be the starting CF on March 29th in Miami. As a baseball fan, I like to watch players and evaluate them for myself, and then supplement them with all the new sabermetrics we have in today’s game. Before writing this piece, I was extremely high on Ian Happ as a player, and also excited about what I thought Almora could be for the Cubs. I thought that most of the non-slugging statistics would favor Almora, but that I would still believe in Happ. I had hoped to remain objective until the very end of this article, but throughout my writing and research, it was just much too difficult to let myself believe that AAJ and Happ were even. Almora still has me excited for his future, but for now I want Happ out there. They are both phenomenal options, and AAJ will still get plenty of playing time and opportunities to show what he can do in 2018, but for now, I take Happ.

One thing is for sure. These two dudes can really play, and if Heyward or Schwarber falter, we could be seeing a lot of these two guys playing together.

For now though, the ball remains in Joe Maddon’s court.

Thanks for reading! Tweet me your thoughts @jermmay5 and follow me on here: Jeremy May

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