The All-Star break is two weeks away and the chaos of the trade deadline is exactly one month away. I know it feels like the 2021 MLB season is just getting started, but we're in the thick of it now. Teams are coming up on their 81st game and soon the postseason races will intensify. I can't wait.
Our weekly series examining various trends across the league continues with a look at a future Hall of Famer's new role, the key decision fueling a young player's breakout, and league-wide trends since the foreign substance crackdown. Last week we broke down Marcus Stroman's new pitch, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.'s improved baserunning, and Arizona's 17-game losing streak.
Pujols the platoon extraordinaire
Six weeks ago the Dodgers surprisingly signed future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols after the Angels cut him loose one week earlier. It was a surprising move because the Dodgers do not have access to the DH spot, limiting Pujols' playing time options, and also because Los Angeles is lauded for depth. Having to sign Pujols off the scrap heap was unexpected.
"I told them I'm here to do whatever," Pujols told reporters, including MLB.com's Juan Toribio, after signing with the Dodgers. "Pinch-hit, first base, whatever they want. I think, at the end of the day, I'm just excited for this opportunity to wear this uniform and, you know, glad to be here."
Pujols, now 41, was not giving lip service when he said he's willing to do "whatever they want." Get to the ballpark early enough and you'll catch him helping out the coaching staff before games.
Pujols has started 18 of the team's 39 games since signing, and appeared in 30 games overall. In those 30 games he owns a .247/.289/.482 overall batting line with six home runs in 90 plate appearances, so the power's been there, but the batting average and on-base percentage are lacking. Pujols has been fine overall. Not great, not horrible. Fine.
The Dodgers could, however, maximize Pujols' production by limiting his exposure to right-handed pitchers. It's easier said than done in this era of eight- and nine-man bullpens, but Pujols has been essentially unplayable against righties while mashing lefties. Here are his splits with the Dodgers:
|PA||AVG/OBP/SLG||HR||Avg. Exit Velocity|
From 2019-21, Pujols hit .253/.295/.490 against lefties and .225/.290/.375 against righties with the Angels, so while his platoon split was not as large as it has been with the Dodgers, it was significant. He's a righty-hitting platoon bat at this point in his career, and there's no shame in that. Deploy him properly and Pujols can be a valuable weapon for a contending team.
Injuries to Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy, and Yoshitomo Tsutsugo have forced the Dodgers to lean on Pujols a little more than they'd like, I imagine, which has contributed to all those plate appearances against righties. With Bellinger and Muncy back, and Corey Seager not too far away, it should be easier to shelter Pujols, and use him almost exclusively as a platoon bat against southpaws.
If the Dodgers are going to win their ninth consecutive NL West title, they're going to have to beat the Padres (and Blake Snell) and the Giants (and Alex Wood) to do it. Ditto the Diamondbacks (and Madison Bumgarner and Caleb Smith) and Rockies (and Kyle Freeland and Austin Gomber). There are lefties aplenty in the division, so Pujols will have plenty of opportunities to make an impact, even in a reduced role.
Mullins thriving as a non-switch-hitter
This is shaping up to be another long season in what is becoming a very long rebuild for the Orioles. They hired GM Mike Elias away from the Astros after losing 115 games in 2018, then they lost 108 games in 2019, and played at a 94-loss pace during the shortened 2020 season. This year the O's are on pace to lose 109 games. They're a year away from being two years away.
It's not all bleak, however. Trey Mancini is the sport's feel-good story following his successful return from Stage 3 colon cancer, and Cedric Mullins is among the game's biggest breakout players. The 26-year-old center fielder owns a .323/.391/.554 batting line this season after hitting .225/.290/.342 in 418 plate appearances from 2018-20. He's been excellent.
Mullins is breaking out thanks in large part to his decision to give up switch-hitting. The natural left-handed hitter gave up hitting from the right side this year, and the results have followed. In fact, he's been much better against lefties as a lefty hitter this year than he was as righty hitter the last few years. Check it out:
|vs. RHP||vs. LHP|
2018-20 (as switch-hitter)
2021 (as lefty hitter only)
General experience and natural growth has certainly played a role in Mullins' breakout. He's approaching the age when hitters have their best seasons. But, he's also stopped hitting from his weaker side, and that's significant. Switch-hitting is difficult -- it amazes me anyone can be a major-league caliber hitter from both sides of the plate -- and giving it up was the right decision for Mullins.
"It's something we've talked about for a few years," Orioles manager Brandon Hyde told reporters, including MLB.com's Joe Trezza, in spring training. "He actually brought it up to us in our first spring training here (in 2019), and then it was something he came to us about again. So we're gonna back him and support him with it, and (the left is) obviously the side that he's a lot more comfortable hitting. He's had more success in the big leagues swinging the bat left-handed."
To date, Mullins' success against lefty pitchers as a lefty batter is a fairly small sample size. Only 109 plate appearances so far, so I'm not 100 percent sold on this being his true talent level against same-side pitchers even though the numbers closely mirror his numbers against righties. I do buy him as a legitimate above-average major league hitter now. The power and contact skills are real.
The Orioles still have a long way to go with their rebuild, though it seems the club has found a cornerstone type player at a key up the middle position. Mullins can really hit, he's a weapon on the bases, and he's played good to great defense as well. Mullins and ace John Means give the O's two strong building blocks as they begin to transition from rebuilder to contender.
Checking in on spin rates
Officially, we are 10 days into MLB's foreign-substance crackdown. The new enforcement rules took effect last Monday and so far only one pitcher, Mariners lefty Héctor Santiago, . Others will get caught in time. It's inevitable. I'd be very skeptical of the crackdown's effectiveness if no pitchers got busted.
Unofficially, we're about a month into the foreign substance crackdown. Word that MLB planned to ramp up enforcement first leaked on June 3, and that's when the spin rate watch began in earnest. It's one thing to use sunscreen or pine tar to get a better grip. It's another to use Spider Tack to weaponize spin. (The Athletic's Eno Sarris found sunscreen improves spin rate but only slightly.)
Offense has picked up this month, and the foreign substance crackdown may be contributing to that, though offense always ticks up in June and July. The weather warms up and the ball carries better, plus pitching injuries typical begin to mount (especially this year) and teams have to dip deep into their organizational depth. There's not one specific reason offense is up.
There is, however, one very large and very specific reason spin rates are down the last few weeks. The foreign-substance crackdown has made it difficult (not impossible, but difficult) to use sticky stuff to improve spin. Four-seam fastballs, sliders, and curveballs are the three pitches that most benefit from high spin. Here are the league averages:
April 1 to June 2, 2021 (no enforcement)
June 3 to June 20, 2021 (unofficial enforcement period)
June 21, 2021 to present (official enforcement period)
An individual pitcher losing 50 rpm or so in a single game is nothing. That's normal fluctuation. That's like sitting 92.5 mph one start and 92.7 mph the next. No big deal. It's the spin rate declines in the 200-plus rpm range that raise an eyebrow. Those indicate the pitcher was using foreign substances to enhance his spin rates (and thus performance).
Losing 50 rpm or so league-wide in a 10-day span is massive. We're talking dozens of pitchers and thousands of pitches, and it can not be explained by random fluctuation. That large a decline suggests that yes, foreign substance use was widespread, and yes, it improved spin rates significantly. It's still unclear how the spin rate decline has impacted offense, but the decline is happening.
Here's how a few control-based statistics have changed since the crackdown (stats are per plate appearance):
|Strikeouts||Walks||Hit by pitches|
April 1 to June 2 (no enforcement)
June 3 to June 20 (unofficial enforcement period)
June 21 to present (official enforcement period)
The league strikeout rate is down a bit since the unofficial enforcement period began, and the hit by pitch rate hasn't barely moved. There was concern the lack of foreign substances would lead to an increase in by hit batsmen, which seemed a little flimsy on the surface, and it hasn't come to pass. At least not yet. The hit by pitch rate has held pretty steady under the new rules.
"We were so stupid as hitters saying, 'Oh, yeah, it's for control. We just don't want them to hit us,'" Cubs star Kris Bryant told reporters, including Tim Stebbins of NBC Sports Chicago, last week. "That was such a cop-out."
Statcast began publishing spin rate data in 2015 but teams were aware of it and measuring it (and weaponizing it) for years prior to that. The league average spin rates have trended up over the years, then the enforcement protocols kicked in, and they started dropping. The spin rates since June 21 are the lowest they've been since before 2019. The crackdown is having a real impact on the game.