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What’s wrong with Albert Pujols?

May 23, 2011, 1:28 PM EDT

pujols grimace Getty Images

The 2011 Cardinals are off to a fine start. They’ve scored more runs than any other team in baseball and feature an 11th-ranked 3.52 staff ERA, which has been inflated all year by poor bullpen work.

Matt Holliday is putting together an MVP-like season with a .996 OPS, seven home runs and 31 RBI in 40 games. Lance Berkman is looking athletic and contributing in big ways offensively to the tune of a .662 slugging percentage. Even defensive-minded catcher Yadier Molina has been rolling and currently leads all big league backstops with a .333 batting average and .380 on-base percentage.

But what about Albert Pujols, the best hitter of the past decade? He’s batting just .269/.341/.409 through 205 plate appearances this season for the National League Central-leading Cardinals and hasn’t gone deep since April 23. It’s the longest homerless streak of Albert’s career and it’s now launching theory upon theory about what he might be doing wrong.

Ben Badler, who writes about scouting and development for Baseball America, suggested Sunday that Pujols’ late-April hamstring tightness is still lingering, and affecting his swing more than most fans realize:

Pujols strides with his left leg (duh). Normally, Pujols plants and stiffens his front leg, which is what allows the hips to rotate with force and generate power. Since his hamstring injury, he doesn’t seem to be firming his front leg any more. When a hitter swings with a bent front leg, it means his body doesn’t have a base from which to rotate forcefully, which means slower hip rotation and less power. The outcome is usually weak contact out front, which is what Pujols has been doing a heck of a lot lately from what I’ve seen and from what the numbers are showing.

Badler is right. Pujols is indeed making weak contact, and it’s something we can explore in depth thanks to the bevy of statistics provided by sites like FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.

Pujols has a .313 career batting average on balls that he puts in play (BABIP). Through 48 games this season, his BABIP is just .264. While that mark can be influenced by a range of things from quality of defense, to park factors, to simple bad luck, it’s quite apparent that Pujols simply isn’t punishing pitches like he has in the past. And that lack of pop is making life easier on opposing fielders.

Pujols has a 17.1 career line drive percentage. This year, it’s at 14.7%. He has a 40.9 career ground ball percentage. This year, it’s at 50.6%. More grounders and less liners means more failed at-bats.

If Badler’s theory is correct and Pujols is hitting poorly because of a bad hamstring, a week or two of rest could do the trick. But what if it’s a product of old age? What if the 31-year-old superstar is actually losing it? Could we be witnessing, already, the beginning of the end?

Barry Bonds posted gaudy numbers right up to age 42, but we know now that his career was aided by performance-enhancing drugs and all indications point to Pujols being clean. Assuming that Albert doesn’t have the chemical assistance, we can’t compare his career path to sluggers in the “Steroid Era.” So let’s compare him to Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx, who played in baseball’s Golden Era from 1925-1945.

Foxx spent time with the Philadelphia Athletics, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies over the course of a 20-year major league career and, like Pujols, played primarily at first base. He made his first big splash during the 1929 season, slugging 33 homers against a 1.088 OPS at the age of 21. He would tally a whopping 413 home runs over his first 10 full major league seasons and average a 1.086 OPS.

Pujols broke through with the Cardinals in 2001, also at the age of 21, and hit 37 home runs alongside a 1.013 OPS while earning Rookie of the Year honors in the National League. He’s since picked up three MVP awards and a 2006 World Series title. His home run tally through the end of 2010 was 408 — just five off Fox. Pujols’ OPS in that 10-year span (from 2001-2010) was 1.050 — only 36 points off Foxx.

But the good times didn’t last for Foxx and they certainly aren’t going to last forever for Pujols.

In 1941, at the age of 33, Foxx hit just 19 homers and registered a .300/.412/.505 batting line in 135 games for the Red Sox. Not bad numbers, but a sign of fading. The next year, at age 34, Fox managed only eight home runs and batted just .226/.320/.344 in 100 games. He retired in 1945 at the age of 37.

The safe bet is on Pujols bouncing back and finishing strong over the final five months of the season. As Cardinals third base coach Jose Oquendo put it to reporters Friday, Pujols has incredible baseball smarts. He averages just 67 strikeouts per year and has been able to mash his way out of slumps before. But it’s worth digging into the topic, especially when you consider that Albert is going to be a free agent in November and is thought to be on the hunt for a 10-year contract worth something close to $300 million.

  1. halladaysbicepts - May 23, 2011 at 1:31 PM

    He’s getting older. This type of decline usually happens in your 30’s. No news here.

    He’ll put up decent stats by the end of the year, if he stays healthy.

    I would not give him the 300 mil of 10 years that he is reportedly seeking, though. That would be nuts!!!

    • Jonny 5 - May 23, 2011 at 1:45 PM

      Or Cards ownership is lacing his batting gloves with LSD…. But I’ll agree with you on this one.

      • kcroyal - May 23, 2011 at 1:48 PM

        LSD expands your mind and batting average…fact.

        I doubt this is the problem.

  2. salvomania - May 23, 2011 at 1:31 PM

    I wonder how many comments it will take before someone suggests that Albert is in decline because he’s actually older than 31.

    • tomemos - May 23, 2011 at 1:36 PM

      Well, 2, apparently.

    • auldworld - May 23, 2011 at 1:37 PM

      Um, two, I guess?

    • Brian Murphy - May 23, 2011 at 1:44 PM

      I think you just answered your own question.

  3. kcroyal - May 23, 2011 at 1:45 PM

    Yep, he’s no Eric Hosmer that’s for sure.

  4. spudchukar - May 23, 2011 at 1:57 PM

    Badler is somewhat correct and perhaps Pujols’ current hitting woes originated with a hamstring injury. What is different in his stroke is indeed his left foot balance. If you clear your hips too early, your weight shifts to the outside of your front plant foot and sapping your power, causing you to top the ball rather than hitting through it. While the injury may be the origin, the habit goes uncorrected. This is compounded by being pounded inside which aggravates the early hip rotation. The 14 double plays he has hit into is a testament to his struggles. (This is of course compounded by the fact that he seldom strikes out, has had lots of runners on in front of him, and isn’t particularly quick out of the box.)

    To be honest he is hitting a weak .264. To date I believe he only has 3 doubles, the most telling stat. His 7 homers came mostly in a ten day stretch. If I thought age was beginning to impact his ability I would honestly say so, but his troubles seem more mechanical. The Cardinals have been remarkably resilient, with the loss of Wainwright, and a myriad of other injuries, but eventually this club will falter if Pujols does not begin to resemble the Pujols of old.

    • Drew Silva - May 23, 2011 at 1:59 PM

      Good point on the doubles. Crazy low.

    • umrguy42 - May 23, 2011 at 2:27 PM

      I’ve been wondering, we have a hitting coach, and a training staff (although you really have to wonder about that latter group – too many guys lost to too much DL time), if he’s hurt, get him some rest, if he’s healed but his mechanics are flawed, then park him in front of the tapes and go “this is when you were good. here’s now when you’re bad. let’s find the difference, and fix it”, and then get him back into the batting cage. Why is this so hard? Let’s face it, it’s not like we don’t have other guys who can play 1B and hit the Mendoza line or better right now. Get it fixed!

      • spudchukar - May 23, 2011 at 3:05 PM

        I feel your pain Umrguy, but bad habits are hard to break. I too have had the urge to grab someone by the neck and say, this is the problem, don’t do it anymore, do this instead. But I imagine all that has been done, and all the talking, and video showing doesn’t automatically translate into doing.

  5. sdelmonte - May 23, 2011 at 2:03 PM

    Gotta wonder if there are people in the Cardinals front office who are relieved that Pujols isn’t signed yet. Too soon to make such a pronouncement, but if the rest of the season looks like this, there will be. (And boy do I feel a bit sorry for the front office guys in Minny, where Mauer’s contract looks like an albatross right now.)

  6. riverace19 - May 23, 2011 at 2:11 PM

    Badler: your point may be valid, but I can’t help but think of Carl Spagler from Caddyshack when explaining how to take care of Judge Smails golf game:

    “[to Ty, about Judge Smails] If he bothers you, Ill take care of him. What youve got to do is cut the hamstring on the back of his leg right at the bottom. Hell never play golf again, because his weight displacement goes back, all his weight is on his right foot, and hell push everything off to the right. Hell never come through on anything. Hell quit the game.”

    It may be the hamstring, or it may be Albert pressing at the plate wondering about his next contract. That has to get in your head. In any event it’s looking like a 10-year contract is a dream.

  7. aceshigh11 - May 23, 2011 at 2:40 PM

    I have a feeling that by the end of the year, Albert will have his usual .300/30 HR/100 RBI line.

    He’ll go on a massive tear at some point, probably sooner rather than later.

    • Joe - May 23, 2011 at 3:32 PM

      Albert’s “usual” is 331/41/123, so even the numbers you cite would be disappointing in the land of Pujols.

      • aceshigh11 - May 23, 2011 at 4:14 PM

        Well, you know what I mean…those would be the minimal benchmarks that he usually surpasses with ease.

  8. dailyrev - May 23, 2011 at 3:29 PM

    This is eerie — just this morning I was at the golf page making fun of the Tiger’s-Washed-Up crowd and their obsession with this world golf ranking spreadsheet. I told them, imagine if there were a world baseball ranking Excel sheet, Pujols would be out of the top 10 and everyone would be calling his career doomed.

    I honestly can’t tell whether this is all pure idiocy, idleness, or a combination of both; but there is some contagion of inanity at MSNBC…

  9. artfowler52 - May 23, 2011 at 3:38 PM

    Announcers and writers are talking stance, swing etc., but I think he is not seeing the ball well coming out of the pitchers hand. When Albert is on and he is seeing the ball well he makes adjustments up to the last micro second and he hits the ball with power to all fields, and especially hard shots between the outfielders leading to a lot of doubles. This year instead of squaring the bat to the ball center cut, he is topping the ball much of the time which is creating weak ground ball outs to infielders. Albert is also flinching on some curve balls which you never saw in the past. I think Albert will get it together yet this year, but not until he figures it out on his own what he is doing wrong. Start with getting eyes checked.

  10. Joe - May 23, 2011 at 3:39 PM

    Interesting “analysis.” You could have just as easily said, “there’s no reason to believe that Pujols has started to decline for real. Just look at Hank Aaron’s track record.” Plus, wasn’t alcohol abuse a likely contributor to Foxx’s decline (the inferior training opportunities of his era notwithstanding)?

    • Drew Silva - May 23, 2011 at 3:46 PM

      Yeah, good points. Didn’t mean to imply that Foxx was the only example of an aging slugger, just a worthy comp because of the way he dropped off after age 33. But comps are mostly dumb anyway. Point is not every player who is great in his 20s will also be great in his 30s.

  11. mrcowpatty - May 23, 2011 at 4:10 PM

    Albert needs to call Berry’s trainer friend. That will fix the problem.

    • salvomania - May 23, 2011 at 4:14 PM

      Would that be Blue, Black, Rasp, or Straw?

      • mrcowpatty - May 23, 2011 at 4:34 PM

        Sorry, that is a joke with some of my friends. What juice do you prefer?

  12. joecool16280 - May 23, 2011 at 4:28 PM

    How about Whats wrong with Miguel Cabrera?

  13. alan3008 - May 23, 2011 at 4:43 PM

    What’s wrong with Puhols? The steroids have worn off. Time to pop a few more roids, Albert, before your stats suck so bad you won’t be worth a damn thing in free agency. LOL.

  14. benedick47 - May 23, 2011 at 5:17 PM

    It’s simple. Last year Tony LaRussa took him to the Glenn Beckk rally. He has not played well since then. He went into the tank the evening after the rally. Since that day, his numbers are totally mediocre. Why? I am not sure. Karma? A guilty conscience?

  15. alan3008 - May 23, 2011 at 6:18 PM

    The Reds are going to take the division. The Cardinals will be fighting for a wildcard again.

  16. stlducks - May 24, 2011 at 12:03 AM

    Well Pujols homered tonight and his defense is looking good so I would say he’s going to be fine. And its funny you would think the reds will take the division with all the cards injuries and bad start they are still 2.5 games up

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