The Pujols Panic Heats Up


When the Angels signed Albert Pujols to a historic 10-year $240 million contract, it was expected that the Angels would be one of the better offenses in the league, anchored by Pujols in the heart of their lineup. However, the Halos first baseman is hitting just .232/.284/.333 through 17 games and has yet to hit his first American League home run. He’s also mired a four-game hitless streak and his struggles are bringing the whole offense down. So is it time to panic?

The performance thus far for Pujols as an Angel has not been great. It hasn’t been terrible, but when you sign for a decade and a quarter of a billion dollars, you don’t get to enjoy an extended slump. Through 69 at-bats this season, Pujols has just four RBI, less than the Nationals Chad Tracy, who’s made one start this season. He is not commanding respect from opposing pitchers, and pitchers aren’t giving him any. He’s walked just five times, fewer than George Kottaras, the Milwaukee Brewers backup catcher. So, he’s not driving in runs, he’s not drawing walks, and he has as many home runs this season as I do. Cause for conern, right? Not according to Torii Hunter:

"“For Albert, this is totally different,” Hunter said. “He doesn’t know any of the pitchers. I’m his scouting report. But when he figures it out, there’s going to be trouble. This guy is good, man.”"

Well, this guy was good, the model of hitting that the entire league has looked to for the last decade and Angels fans are hoping this is just a slump as Pujols adjusts to all the new pitchers.

However, there might be a more alarming trend developing. At 32 years old, “the Machine” has looked like a mere man in 2012 and his recent numbers suggest a fall to earth isn’t out of the question. In 2008, Pujols posted a career-high OPS of 1.114. Since then, he’s watched his numbers fall, with his batting average going from .357 in 2008 to .327 in 2009, .312 in 2010, and .299 in 2011. At the same time, his on-base percentage has seen similar drop off, going from .462 to .443 to .414 to .366. His slugging percentage also dipped, down from .653 in 2008 to just .541 in 2011. Back-to-back-to-back years of declining production should raise some red flags. So what’s going on?

Part of the problem can be traced to drop in Albert’s plate discipline. Looking at Pujols’ walk rate over the last four seasons, we see that he’s not taking as many free passes. In 2008, Pujols walked once every 7.5 at-bats, which fell to once ever 8.0 at-bats in 2009, then 9.0 in 2010, and last season walked once every 12.6 at-bats. So far this season, Pujols has drawn just five walks, or one every 23 at-bats. He’s getting fewer walks because he’s being less selective at the plate.

In 2011, Pujols hit .301 against sliders and curves, good for 10th-best in the majors. This season, Pujols is hitting just .091 against sliders and curves (helpful info-graphic here), mainly due to an astronomical chase percentage on breaking balls out of the zone of 58 percent, which is only exceeded by Clint Barmes, Chone Figgins, Dee Gordon, and Chris Davis. That isn’t the company of hitters you want for a $240 million slugger. Overall, Pujols is chasing more than just curves and sliders out of the zone. So far this season, the Angels first baseman has chased 34 percent of pitches out of the strike zone, up significantly from his career average of 28 percent.  The 2012 version of Albert Pujols looks less like the most prolific hitter in history and more like an older player trying to speed up his bat against fastballs which leaves him open to get fooled by offspeed pitches. Not exactly what Jerry Dipoto was looking for when he offered up a monster contract this offseason.

However, things are not all gloom and doom. While Pujols has been on the decline, and 2011 was his worst season statistically, he was still a terrific hitter. He ranked 10th in the NL in OPS, 11th in wOBA, and hit 37 home runs despite missing 15 games with a fractured arm. That’s pretty darn good. Unfortunately, Pujols set an impossibly high expectation level with his unheralded success early in his career, and the Angels didn’t pay for him to be the 10th or 11th best hitter in the league. For $240 million, Pujols needs to be the best.

There are signs that this slow start will get turned around. According to Fangraphs, Pujols’ line-drive percentage this season is at 25 percent, which is much higher than his career mark of 19.1 percent, so bad luck has factored into the slugger’s struggles. There’s also the example from last season, when Pujols hit just .245 in April with only two home runs in May and finished hitting .299 with 37 homers, both which would have led the Angels last season. It’s only April and a couple of strong games strung together will do wonders to put this slow start in everybody’s rear view. So everybody hold off on the pitchforks and torches just yet. Pujols can still come back around.