What's wrong with Albert Pujols?
As Albert Pujols sits out Saturday night's game against the Blue Jays, do we have any idea as to what's wrong with the Angels slugger?
Over his objections, Albert Pujols has been given Saturday night off for purposes of "mental rest." Suffice it to say, he probably needs it.
As his struggles mount, so does the pressure on him to end those struggles. Even for a mentally robust player like Pujols, the spiraling numbers can feed off themselves. Indeed, early May finds his hitting a wildly uncharacteristic .194/.237/.269. In related matters, he hasn't hit a home run in 114 plate appearances.
First, the obvious: Pujols, even if he's in the clutches of his decline phase, isn't this bad. He's going to get better. The issue -- a very expensive issue for the Angels -- is how much better he's going to get.
Keep in mind that we're just a month into the season, and our data samples aren't yet adequate. Still, a look at what has unfolded to date might provide us with some insight, so long as we don't lose sight of the fact that there's plenty of time for things to change.
Most notably, Pujols's batting average on balls in play (BABIP) has cratered. While a hitter's drop in BABIP can indicate a decline in skills, a precipitous drop (especially over a small sample size) is almost certainly due to bad luck for the most part. In Pujols's case, his BABIP for 2012 is .226 against a career rate of .310. Specifically, it's ground balls and line drives that have done Pujols in so far.
On grounders this season, Pujols's BABIP is .081, while the AL average BABIP on grounders is .227. On liners, his BABIP is .591, while the AL average is .701. Those are pretty wide gaps, and, again, simple misfortune is likely playing the dominant role. Those numbers won't last, and as they rise so will everything else in Pujols's statistical profile.
Moreover, Pujols's line-drive rate is a career-best 24.7%. In light of that fact, it's minor miracle that his numbers are as bad as they are.
The erosion of Pujols's plate discpline is another factor. His walk rate has plummeted, and he's swinging at 39.8% of pitches outside the strike zone, which is almost double his career rate of 21.8%. Is he pressing, or is his batting eye eroding? The fact that he's making contact on out-of-zone pitches at a career-best percentage suggests he's the victim of bad habits rather than something irreversible and age-related.
Elsewhere, it's worth noting that Pujols has faced a career-high percentage of sliders this season, and that's the pitch that's caused him the most trouble over the course of his career. It could be that Pujols has faced an inordinate number of slide-piece specialists thus far, or it could be that AL advanced scouts are advising their teams to feed him heavier doses of the pitch. Or it could be, you know, random noise. Whatever the case, that's a situation worth monitoring as the season deepens the data sample grows.
Add it all up, and it's fairly clear that Pujols is likely to bounce back at any moment -- you simply don't hit line drives that often and put up such foul-smelling numbers . Yes, it's possible vintage, MVP-grade Pujols is no more, but there's little doubt that a productive hitter still lies within. None of that means the Angels didn't hand out an ill-advised contract, but the trends beneath Pujols's performance suggest notably better days ahead.