SocraticGadfly: What's wrong with #Pujols?

June 11, 2012

What's wrong with #Pujols?

Update, June 11: There's nothing wrong with Pujols now. Split stats have him with an OPS above 1.000 for June, and I'll guess above .900 from mid-May to today. Sorry,  Pujols haters. Now that he's got halfway up to speed on AL pitchers, and may stop pressing so much, all that he needs next is his comfort zone with Mike Scioscia. 

Before the start of the season, I predicted Albert Pujols would have a bounce-back year indeed. I said expect about a .320 BA, 45 or so HRs, an OPS of above 1.000, etc., and lead the Angels to win the AL West and more; details here. (Note to semi-regular blog readers: I republish this post to go to the top post on the blog as new information/analysis/discussion pops up.)

There were several reasons for this.

First, I thought that he had been "pressing" early in the year last year, with Wainwright out and other things, as far as how much he was trying to carry the team. Second, I thought he might have been "pressing" a bit over the contract issue, even though he denied that he was, for any reason.

There were other reasons I made the prediction.

Pujols was moving to a park that was more hitter-friendly. He would be in the AL, with occasional games at DH to rest a bit, and the deeper lineups for which that makes. The Los Angeles Angels would field a lineup that seemed to be the overall equal of the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals. Beyond his pitcher-friendly home stadium, he'd have plenty of games in Arlington, and a few in Boston, New York, etc. to offset Oakland's pitcher-friendly site.

So far, though, he's on the longest homerless drought of his career, which leads me to wonder if I should change my current poll on his projected homer totals, or add one about his first dinger's date.

And, now, May 4 (update), it's not just taters. Did you ever think Albert Pujols would be flirting with the Mendoza line? (It's related to the HR drought, I'm sure, but still; heck, since April 20, through May 5 and counting, his slugging percentage is below the Mendoza line!)

And, a day later, May 5, he's now below the Mendoza, and benched ... and booed! Guess that second poll will have to come right back down.

So, what's the problem?

Well, Kendrys Morales behind him has yet to set the world on fire in his return; I don't know if that means Pujols is getting nothing good to hit or not, but it's a possibility. Maybe he's pressing, just like last year, though he would deny it. Maybe, if he is, it's in part because Vernon Wells is again the Wells of 2011.

Maybe the adjustment to AL pitching on a regular basis, despite several years of interleague play, has been tougher than expected.

Maybe he's lost a modicum of what modest foot speed he has. Or maybe, like fellow Dominican David Ortiz, it's time for the age questions to start popping up more.

Or maybe we're still on a smallish sample size. Or a mix of all of the above.

That said, Pujols can start slow, and did before last year. But not always.

Call me back, say, around Mother's Day or a week later, and let's take another look. Speaking of additional looks, there's further, follow-up thought below the fold.

Update, May 1: Yahoo's Mike Brown has optimism for Pujols. He says that his lower walk rates and higher strikeout rates probably do reflect "pressing" to get untracked. He also notes that most of the Angels batting order is struggling. (Interestingly, with the release of Bobby Abreu, the Haloes have not a single lefty-only batter.) Others, meanwhile, join in the speculation that a change of leagues, and pitching adjustments, is an issue. (Co-columnist Jeff Passan has more waggish thoughts.)

ESPN's Stats and Info blog also thinks Pujols is due for improvement. And, that a bad April doesn't necessarily prevent not just a good, but a spectacular year. It notes a guy named Babe Ruth hit 54 taters in 1920 after nary a yardball in April of that year.

And St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz has an excellent analysis of what's wrong, and what of that might be temporary. He agrees with ESPN that Pujols' might be losing a touch of bat speed, which explains him swinging more, and chasing more outside off-speed pitches than in the past. He doesn't think that's the only swing-related issue, though; he thinks part of it is that old word, "pressing."

At the same time, part of it, he says, is bad luck, namely that Pujols has a terrible year so far on batting average on balls in play, but that his line drive percentage is about normal.

At the same time, Bernie says his line drive distance is fading, which would again reflect on loss of bat speed.

His conclusion is worth quoting in full:
(C)learly Albert has fallen into some uncharacteristically flawed hitting habits. He's also lost his sharpness in strike-zone judgment. He's also experienced some lousy luck. His line-drive rate is healthy, but his fly-ball rate could reveal a loss in power. (Too soon to say.) While it would be stupid to state that Pujols will have a terrible 2012 based on one month, it's equally dumb to dismiss many of the factors responsible for the poor numbers. 

The decrease in walks, the increase in strike outs, the increase in chasing pitches, the drop in OBP and slugging ... nothing new. That had started during his final two seasons in St. Louis. But those downward trends seem to have become more extreme so far in 2012.
Again, I said Mother's Day above, for a check-up on Phat Albert. Since that's early this year, let's push it back one more week. But, if he's still this struggling by mid-May, maybe Mike Scioscia, who's tinkered plenty with the batting order this year, needs to move him down a slot or two in the lineup. Or else up, paradoxically, to No. 2, and he can worry less about HRs there.

Update, May 4: OK, this is getting serious. Maybe the Babe had a homerless April in 1920, but neither then nor in the hot-dog stomach year of 1923 did he flirt with the Mendoza line, which, at a .208 batting average, Phat Albert is now doing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Albert was one of the great players in MLB. Being from SL, have observed Albert trending down over the past three seasons, including far too numerous missed RBI opportunities. If you look at the 2011 splis for Albert, you will observe how absolutely diappointing his production was after the 6th inning, and in particular, in the 9th inning or later. Worse, he failed to bat .300 not because of lack of hitting but because he failed to take walks. There was no batter better at pulling an inside pitch and keeping it fair, but he lost quickness and could no longer perform this feat. His defense also slumped. We wish him no ill but fear his best years are behind hi.