pujols grimace

What’s wrong with Albert Pujols?

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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.

Sanchez hits another home run, Yankees rout Orioles 13-5

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NEW YORK (AP) Rookie Gary Sanchez kept up a most remarkable run, homering for the third straight game as the New York Yankees routed the Baltimore Orioles 13-5 Saturday.

Sanchez hit a drive that bounced off the top of the right-center field wall and over in the fourth inning. He reached 11 career home runs faster than anyone in major league history – 23 games, including two hitless games last year.

After the switch-hitting catcher connected, the crowd of 38,843 emphatically chanted his name. Mark Teixeira stepped out of the batter’s box, pausing the game and allowing the 23-year-old to tip his batting helmet to the fans from the top of the dugout steps.

Starlin Castro and Aaron Hicks also homered as the Yankees won their fourth in a row. A day after trouncing the Orioles 14-4, New York moved within 2 1/2 games of them for the second AL wild-card spot.

Chris Davis homered twice and Mark Trumbo hit his big league-leading 39th home run for Baltimore, which has dropped three straight.

Sanchez is now hitting .400 with 21 RBIs in 21 games this year.

Castro had four hits and drove in three runs, Hicks also drove in three runs and Brian McCann got three hits and drove in two.

Every Yankees starter has gotten a hit in back-to-back games for the first time since July 26-27, 2009.

Tommy Layne (1-1) pitched a scoreless inning for the win.

Dylan Bundy (7-5) gave up five runs in four innings.

The Yankees got 18 hits and drew seven walks. For all that offensive output, it was a disputed play on the bases that put them ahead.

Baltimore led 2-1 in the third when with two outs, singles by Teixeira, Didi Gregorius and Castro brought home the tying run.

With runners at the corners, Castro broke for second. Catcher Matt Wieters‘ throw was then cut off by shortstop J.J. Hardy as Gregorius tried to steal home.

Hardy’s throw appeared to be in time, but Gregorius neatly tucked in his right arm and extended his left arm across home plate.

Umpire Ron Kulpa called Gregorius out, but the Yankees challenged and the ruling was overturned. After the review, McCann hit an RBI double for a 4-2 lead.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Yankees: McCann returned to the starting lineup after being away following the death of his grandmother.

Orioles: CF Adam Jones was held out of the lineup after aggravating his hamstring injury on Friday. He tried to talk his way into starting, manager Buck Showalter said.

UP NEXT

Orioles: RHP Kevin Gausman (5-10, 3.92 ERA) is set to make his fourth start this season against the Yankees. He’s 0-1 in the previous three outings despite a 1.31 ERA.

Yankees: LHP CC Sabathia (8-10, 4.33) was originally scheduled to pitch Monday in Kansas City. But manager Joe Girardi made a switch, starting Sabathia instead of RHP Michael Pineda. Manager Joe Girardi cited Baltimore’s better numbers against right-handed pitching and the Royals’ success vs. lefties.

Urias matures on mound in Dodgers’ 3-2 win over Cubs

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LOS ANGELES (AP) Julio Urias allowed one run over six innings, Corey Seager set a Dodgers franchise record for a shortstop with his 23rd home run and Los Angeles defeated the Chicago Cubs 3-2 on Saturday to even the series between NL division leaders.

Urias (5-2) pitched better at home than the last time he faced the Cubs. The rookie left-hander made his second career start in Chicago on June 2 and gave up six runs – five earned – and eight hits in five innings while serving up three homers.

This time, he allowed six hits and tied a career high with eight strikeouts and two walks. He is 4-0 in six games (four starts) since the All-Star break.

Kenley Jansen pitched a perfect ninth for his 38th save a day after allowing a run on a wild pitch in the ninth in a 6-4, 10-inning loss.

The Cubs’ four-game winning streak ended behind the shortest outing of the season from Jason Hammel (13-7). He gave up three runs and five hits in 2 1/3 innings.

The right-hander was coming off a poor performance against Colorado, allowing a season-high 10 runs (six earned) in 3 1/3 innings of an 11-4 loss. Hammel remained winless in nine career games (six starts) at Dodger Stadium.

The Cubs’ rally in the seventh came up short. They got to 3-2 on pinch-hitter Jason Heyward‘s RBI single off reliever Pedro Baez.

Heyward got caught stealing, and Baez walked Dexter Fowler and Kris Bryant before getting Anthony Rizzo on an inning-ending grounder.

Los Angeles took a 3-1 lead in the third on RBI singles by Chase Utley and Justin Turner. Utley’s hit was the third straight given up by Hammel to start the inning.

Seager tied the game at 1 in the first, giving him the most homers by a Dodgers shortstop in franchise single-season history. He broke the old mark of 22 set by Glenn Wright in 1930.

The Cubs led 1-0 in the first on Rizzo’s RBI single.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Cubs: RHP John Lackey (right shoulder strain) will throw a bullpen session on Monday in Chicago.

Dodgers: OF Scott Van Slyke won’t play again this season. He’s on the DL with right wrist irritation after being out nearly two months earlier in the season with low back irritation. “He doesn’t have the range of motion he needs to contribute,” manager Dave Roberts said. … LHP Clayton Kershaw (mild disk irritation) will face hitters in a simulated game on Tuesday in Los Angeles, Rancho Cucamonga or Arizona.

AT THE TURNSTILES

The announced attendance of 49,522 pushed the Dodgers over the 3 million mark for the fifth consecutive year and made them the first team in the majors to top that number this season.

DAY TRIPPIN’

The game featured the major leagues’ top two clubs in day games. The Dodgers improved to 24-11, while the Cubs fell to 38-21. Los Angeles came in averaging over a run more during the day (5.56) than at night (4.17).

UP NEXT

Cubs: LHP Jon Lester (14-4, 2.81 ERA) is 1-1 with a 4.05 ERA in two career starts at Dodger Stadium. The team is 7-0 in his last seven starts.

Dodgers: RHP Brock Stewart (0-2, 11.25) makes his third career major league start after being recalled from Triple-A Oklahoma City on Friday. He last pitched on Aug. 19 against Albuquerque, allowing four hits in five scoreless innings.