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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Why Pujols is struggling

Pujols finishes April with no homers for Angels

One of the top stories in MLB for April was the slow start by the Angels' Albert Pujols. The former Cardinal is struggling in his new environment. One month is only a slice of the season, so we'll assume that he'll get going and put up some good numbers.
It's a prominent national story for several reasons: (1) he entered the season as the game's greatest hitter, and attention comes with that. (2) He signed a $240 million deal with the Angels, and the free-agent defection only intensified the scrutiny. At the time Pujols signed, many wondered if the Angels screwed up in giving him a 10-year contract. That means Pujols will be monitored more closely than other players.  It happens to all superstars that sign a mega deal. (3) In St. Louis and beyond, there's interest in how Pujols would do after leaving a place where he was happy and comfortable and thriving in an ideal setting for him, on and off the field.
By the way, if you're one of the folks that crank out whiny e-mails and comments about how you never, ever, never, ever, never, ever want to hear about Pujols again — and that you will hold your breath and stomp your feet and close your eyes and cover your ears until those bad Post-Dispatch people stop mentioning him — here's a simple suggestion: don't read it. No one is holding a machete to your neck, forcing you to read it. Besides, every time we have a Pujols-related story on, it's among the most highly-read headlines on the site for that day. Which leads me to believe that at least some of the people who say they never, ever, never, ever want to read a word about Pujols again are, in fact, reading every word about Pujols.
OK, so why is Pujols off to a cold start? I'm not getting into the soap-opera aspects of this; we can discuss that another time. This is all about baseball and hitting trends.
I wanted to zero in on the quantifiable factors. The data. How are pitchers working him? What are his vulnerable areas? Has he developed any bad habits?
Let's take a comprehensive look...
* First of all, perspective. Entering May 1 last season he was batting .245 with a .305 onbase percentage, .453 slugging pct. Right now he's .217 BA, .265 OBP, .304 SLG. No homers, four RBIs. Though Pujols got off to a rough start in 2011, he did hit 7 homers and drive in 18 runs in April. But the point is, this isn't the first time that he's slumped. It's just that it's his worst slump.
* Remember the signs of decline. We wrote about this a few times last season, but in 2011 Pujols was showing areas of decline. Starting in 2009, here were his last three OBPs as a Cardinal: .443, .414, .366. That's a significant drop. And here were his last three slugging percentages as a Cardinal: .658, .596, .541. Though Pujols ended up with good baseball-card numbers, the trending arrow was pointing down in several important stat categories. So far, that downward trend has continued in 2012.
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* An alarming drop in walk rate. As Cardinals fans know, Pujols was a walking machine. But that began to change in 2011, and it's been even more pronounced so far in 2012. Pujols walked on 16.4 percent of his plate appearances in 2009, 14.7 percent in 2010, only 9.4 percent in 2011, and the walk rate is 6.1 this season. That's more than a 50 percent drop from 2009. That can't be dismissed. Pujols' strikeout rate is 14.3 percent this season. That would be the highest of his career. His walk/K ratio of 0.43 is easily the worst of his career to this point.
* In a related note, Pujols is chasing more pitches out of the strike zone. According to Fangraphs, his "chase" rate on out-of-zone pitches is 40.1 percent this season. That's a glaring number. It also represents the continuation of a trend that began in 2011 when Pujols had a chase rate of just under 32 percent. That rate was 27.5 percent in 2010. Before that, he'd never chased bad pitches at a rate higher than 22 percent. Pujols' strike-zone discipline is eroding.
* One hopeful sign for Pujols: his line-drive rate is very healthy so far. His line-drive rate of 24.4 percent is up about 7 points from where he was in 2010 and 2011. So when Pujols says he's hitting balls hard and having some bad luck, there's truth to it. His batting average on balls in play is .256 That's low for Pujols, who had .315 career average on balls in play before this season. The luck factor is working against him in the early days of 2012. That luck certainly can change.
* One disturbing sign for Pujols: the ball isn't traveling as far when he hits it into the air. (I'm talking fly balls, not liners or pop-ups.) According to the web site, Pujols fly balls are traveling an average of 266 feet so far this seasson. That's a drop from an average of 313 feet in 2010, and 303 feet in 2011. (Hat tip to Fangraphs for alerting readers to the beat the maps site.)
* Angels reliever Jason Isringhausen, Pujols' longtime teammate in St. Louis, recently observed that pitchers were having success pounding Pujols down and in. Izzy is pretty much correct, though Pujols has gotten a couple of hits on low-inside pitches located in the strike zone. Inside pitchers are giving Pujols fits. According to STATS LLC, Pujols is batting .167 on strikes thrown up and in, and .083 on strikes thrown in and at the belt. He is also chasing inside pitches out of the strike zone. Pitchers have thrown him 22 low-inside pitches out of the strike zone, and he's chased 10 of them. He doesn't have a hit on those low-inside balls. Generally speaking it is never a good sign when an aging slugger shows signs of vulnerability when opponents work him inside. Overall Pujols is batting .188 on all inside fastballs, and .154 on inside fastballs thrown by RH pitchers.
* Pujols seems to be awfully anxious to end his home-run drought. He's been pull-crazy so far, yanking way to many batted balls to the left side. According to STATS, 41 percent of Pujols' batted balls have been grounders to the left side. This year 27 percent of Pujols' batted balls have been hit in the air to left field. So if you add it up, 68 percent of his batted balls have been pulled to left. Last season 40 percent of Pujols' batted balls were pulled to left. Big difference. Pujols has always been at his best when he's shooting hard-hit balls to all parts of the field, especially the middle.
* Being pull happy also works against Pujols in another way; pitchers see what he's doing and they're exploiting it. He's seeing more curves, changeups, sliders. Pujols is so anxious, he's jumping at the non-fastballs, and working against himself. According to STATS, pitchers have thrown him 30 curves this season and he does not have a hit against the pitch despite swinging at 37 percent of the curves offered to him. They have thrown him 36 changeups, and he doesn't have a hit against the change despite swinging at 59 percent of the changeups offered to him. They have thrown him 70 sliders, and Pujols is batting .200 against the slider.
Conclusion: clearly 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.

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