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The Mystery of Abraham Almonte

Ever since it was announced that Michael Brantley had surgery and would be out until May (August?, no, May, wait, maybe April, or is it June?!), I found myself asking the same question over and over again. What is Abraham Almonte? I know who he is. He’s a human being, the father of two daughters, and a recovered alcoholic. He’s a switch hitting outfielder that thrived in his first full taste of Major League action after being acquired for Marc Rzepczynski from the San Diego Padres. The Indians are his fourth organization.

On the other hand, I don’t know what he is. Almonte slashed .264/.321/.455 in 196 plate appearances and played defense that wasn’t pretty on the eyes, but was somewhat pretty on the advanced metrics. The Indians seem to be entering the season with the hope that Almonte can get 450 plate appearances and play somewhere around 120 games in center field while they wait on Bradley Zimmer or Clint Frazier. Rajai Davis has the ability to play center field, but it’s hardly a debate that Almonte would be the better option at that position. Defensively, Almonte projects to be a cheaper, possibly interchangeable, center field with guys like Dexter Fowler and Denard Span. Keep in mind how much price matters for a team like the Indians. It’s not Year 1 of Fowler or Span that would hurt. It’s 2017 and beyond.

By Fangraphs’s WAR calculations, Almonte was worth 1.4 fWAR in his 51 games and 196 plate appearances. He was an above average offensive piece and an above average defensive piece. Almonte’s 111 wRC+ was aided by a good contact rate, a slightly above average walk rate, and some surprising pop from the 26-year-old. His production was not unprecedented in his career. His best season, his 2013 campaign spent between Double-A and Triple-A, yielded a .300/.394/.482 slash and he also swiped 26 bases while being caught eight times.

Viewed largely as a complementary piece, Almonte doesn’t have any tools that jump off the page. One could argue that his speed is a plus tool given that he stole 30+ in the minors on multiple occasions and was perfect in six tries with the Indians. As I’ve mentioned in past articles, fans don’t appreciate the value that being “average” can create for a Major League team. There are a lot of below average players in Major League Baseball, whether they are subpar offensively, defensively, or both. In Almonte’s case, the Indians have a player with the potential to be an average hitter and an average defender.

Considering that Almonte’s development was stunted by a shoulder injury and problems with the bottle, it wouldn’t be a big surprise to see him become something of a “late bloomer”, in a sense. Not that 26 is all that late in baseball years, even with more emphasis on aging curves and prime years, especially for an international free agent. But, he also made his MiLB debut at just 17 years of age, so he paid his dues moving up the system.

Steamer projections do not look favorably on Almonte. Over 337 plate appearances, Almonte is ticketed for a .247/.308/.371 slash, a .297 wOBA, an 87 wRC+, and slightly above average defense. ZiPS projections paint a similar picture with a .247/.307/.384 slash, with a .307 wOBA and a 90 OPS+. He’s also viewed as a negative defensively. That skill set is worth 0.8 wins above replacement player per zWAR.

Can we paint a rosier picture using the numbers? Absolutely. Almonte, who struck out in 18 percent of his minor league plate appearances, only took the long, lonely walk to the dugout in 16.8 percent of his plate appearances with the Indians. That lowered his career MLB strikeout rate to 23.8 percent. Is that an example of a hitter getting comfortable with steady playing time? Is it an anomaly? Is it predictive in any way? Probably not.

What we do know is that Almonte made a lot more contact on pitches in the zone with the Indians than he did in his small sample size with the Padres. He was terrible at making contact when he swung at pitches outside of the zone, but his rate of contact on pitches in the zone was slightly above the American League average. He also showed decent patience with an 8.2 percent BB% in his sample size with the Indians. League average in that category is 7.7 percent. Did the Indians find something in his swing mechanics? It’s entirely possible. Somebody smarter than me would have to look at that.

He was in the middle of the pack out of over 400 tracked hitters in exit velocity, so that isn’t a plus or a minus in his profile. Almonte is a switch hitter, but he showed significantly more power from the left side of the plate. He had an identical .250 batting average each way, but had a .459 SLG left-handed and a .267 SLG right-handed. He had 194 PA against right-handed pitching and 64 PA against left-handed pitching.

One interesting note is that Almonte faced a steady diet of breaking balls in his time with the Tribe. Per PITCHf/x data, Almonte saw 17 percent changeups and 14.4 percent curveballs (including pitches classified as knuckle curves). He also saw 14.7 percent sliders. That left a relatively small percentage of fastballs. The sample size isn’t significant enough to make any sort of judgment. It’s just worth pointing out because it is interesting. Seeing a hitter have some measure of success against non-fastballs is encouraging and Almonte did well against changeups.

Defensively, the eyes told the tale of a man that had trouble with balls hit over his head. The numbers, however, showed a player that made every play that he was supposed to, and then some. Inside Edge Fielding data separates batted balls into six different categories based on percentage chance of being an out. Almonte was a perfect 143-for-143 on balls rated at 40 percent or higher. He was 1-for-7 on balls classified as “Unlikely (10-40%)”. That’s hardly a criticism, though the league average on balls in the 10-40% range for outfielders was 31.4 percent.

Making judgments on a player over a 51-game sample size in which said player had 196 plate appearances and 440.1 defensive innings is very hard to do. The reality of the situation regarding Abraham Almonte is that he probably profiles as a league average player when he has the ability to hit against right-handed pitchers and as a below average player against left-handed pitchers. That unscientific assessment takes into account the fact that his defensive ceiling is “average”.

There are some intangible elements in play here as well. When Almonte was acquired by the Indians, they had no center field solution. Chris Antonetti knew it. Terry Francona knew it. Abraham Almonte knew it. So, he was playing with the pressure of impressing the team for the 2016 season, but he was also able to make mistakes because he wasn’t going to ride the pine for making them. There’s the pressure to impress and the pressure to fail. Most people that have played sports can attest to which one is harder. For a guy with a tumultuous rise through the minor leagues, he probably followed some sage advice. “Just go out there and play.”

If that’s what Almonte did, then the Indians may be looking at a 1 to 1.5-win player with the potential to fall modestly above or well below that. Is it ideal? No, especially for a team that has to focus on the margins to level the unfair financial playing field. Given Michael Brantley’s injury, the best guesstimates of Almonte’s production won’t be enough to move the needle with most fans or evaluators. However, as a part-time player on the fat side of the platoon, Almonte has enough value to be passable on a team that has above average tools in just about every position on the field and in the pitching staff.

On a personal level, I’ve been perplexed by my dive into Almonte’s characteristics and statistics. It’s fair to assume that some development is left, given his long and windy path to the Majors. Normally, I can isolate the good and bad traits and evaluate them as needed. Almonte doesn’t have a high ceiling or a low floor, so maybe the front office isn’t losing sleep or hair over it. He could end up platooning with Rajai Davis, who hits lefties well. He could end up in Columbus as a victim of the numbers game since he has minor league options. He could bottom out and be a throwaway piece. He could blossom into a two-win outfielder with 20 SB, 10 HR power, and average defensive skills.

With Almonte, there are significantly more questions than answers. In fact, I’m not sure there are any concrete answers.


So, when I ask, ‘What is Abraham Almonte?’, I truly mean it.
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