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.

Julio Urias to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery

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The news has gone from bad to worse for Dodgers’ left-hander Julio Urias, who is scheduled for anterior capsule surgery on his left shoulder next Tuesday and expected to be sidelined through the middle of the 2018 season. His MRI came back negative on Wednesday, giving the Dodgers some hope that the 20-year-old’s bout of shoulder inflammation wasn’t masking any structural damage, but the pain lingered several days later and prompted further concern from the club. The procedure will be performed by Dr. Neal ElAttrache.

Urias was optioned to Triple-A Oklahoma City in late May and placed on the disabled list with left shoulder discomfort several weeks into his assignment. At the major league level, he owned a 5.40 ERA, 5.4 BB/9 and 4.2 SO/9 through 23 1/3 innings, going 0-2 in five starts with Los Angeles. He made a brief rebound in Triple-A, posting three wins and striking out 17 of 67 batters in 17 1/3 innings before landing on the DL.

It’s a tough blow for the southpaw, who had yet to hit his stride in the majors before getting sidelined with shoulder issues. The Dodgers were especially mindful of this outcome for Urias, and had taken preventative measures to protect his arm by establishing a strict innings limit last season. According to club president Andrew Friedman, there’s a small silver lining here: while Urias’ injury will keep him out of work for at least 12 months, he doesn’t appear to have sustained any damage to his labrum or rotator cuff, and could be facing a much more streamlined recovery process as a result. Whether he’ll be able to rebound once he takes the mound again remains to be seen.

Tigers release Francisco Rodriguez

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Tigers’ right-handed reliever Francisco Rodriguez was released on Friday, per a team announcement. The club recalled fellow right-hander Bruce Rondon from Triple-A Toledo in a corresponding move.

The former closer got the boot after losing his closing role in early May, giving left-hander Justin Wilson a chance to impress at the back end of the bullpen. It’s been a rough year for Rodriguez, who manufactured six blown saves and a 7.82 ERA, 3.9 BB/9 and 8.2 SO/9 over 25 1/3 innings for the Tigers. The final straw, it seemed, came with Robinson Cano‘s grand slam in the seventh inning of the Tigers’ 6-9 loss to the Mariners on Thursday.

While the demotion to a clean-up role and an apparent lack of communication caused Rodriguez considerable frustration, he’s two years removed from his last dominant performance as a major league closer and has shown few signs of returning to form. His recent slump doesn’t diminish the impressive totals he’s racked up over his 16-year career — 437 saves and six All-Star nominations among them — but if he can’t break out of it soon, he may not receive the kind of high leverage role he’s seeking with another big league team, either.