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.

Tony La Russa went into the Pirates broadcast booth over Hit-by-pitch criticism

MESA, AZ - MARCH 10:  Chief baseball officer Tony La Russa of the Arizona Diamondbacks gestures as he talks with coaches in the dugout before the spring training game against the Oakland Athletics at HoHoKam Stadium on March 10, 2015 in Mesa, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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On Tuesday a couple of Arizona Diamondbacks batters were hit in head by Pirates pitcher Arquimedes Caminero. Caminero did not appear to be trying to bean these guys. He simply had no control whatsoever. That the Pirates just sent him down to the minors underscores that. Still: a bad situation given the inherent danger of plunkings in general and beanballs in particular. Thank goodness nether Dbacks batter appears to be injured.

It would make sense that Dbacks folks would be a bit upset at this, but Tony La Russa took things to the next level. The Pirates announcers apparently mentioned something about the Diamondbacks’ and La Russa’s history with hit-by-pitch controversies. And then this, from Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic . . .

La Russa acknowledged he went into a broadcast booth during Tuesday night’s game after he “heard some stuff on the air” that he considered inaccurate about his history with retaliatory pitches during his managerial days.

“I never have stood for inaccuracies,” La Russa said, “so I corrected the inaccuracies.

“It’s about taking responsibility. If you’re going to speak untruths then you’re going to get challenged and you should be responsible for what you say. I am. I reacted.”

That’s a totally chill and above-it-all way for a Hall of Famer and the head of baseball operations of a major league club to react. Glad to see La Russa, as always, is a portrait of zen.

Either way, the Pirates announcers should be excused if they were somewhat inaccurate. For you see, La Russa has always been somewhat hard to pin down on his plunking/beanball politics. In the past he’s said that another team accidentally hitting his team is bad while defending his own team’s clear and obvious retaliation. He once blamed an opposing hitter for escalating a situation by not avoiding what was clearly intentional attempt to hit him by his own player, claiming that a mere inside pitch with no intent was worse than his own guy TRYING to hit the opposition.

The common denominator to La Russa’s history with this stuff is (a) whatever the Tony La Russa-led team is doing is correct; (b) whatever the other team did was incorrect; and (c) almost everyone who isn’t Tony La Russa just doesn’t get it and that’s their problem, not his.

So of course he’s gonna go into a broadcast booth to La Russa-splain things to them. It’s a complicated business about which he and he alone has clarity. He’s doing us a favor, really.

Wade Boggs embroiled in non-controversy over his Yankees World Series ring!

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The Red Sox held a ceremony honoring the 1986 team last night and one of the key members of that team, Wade Boggs, was in attendance wearing  his Red Sox jersey. He also wore his Yankees World Series ring.

When I heard about this controversy a few minutes ago I did something that neither I nor most people who are a part of the Internet Industrial Complex usually do: wondered whether this was actually a controversy.

I quickly scanned around and found a good dozen or so articles talking about it and people talking about them talking about it. I noticed people making reference to how, theoretically, this could upset some Red Sox fans or be seen as a sign of disrespect. But I could not find anyone who actually cared. Anyone who was actually upset about it. I can’t say that I read every comment to every article, but you usually don’t have to dig deep to find people mad about something on the Internet and I could not immediately find anyone who was mad about this. Lots of jokes and comments about the idea of being mad, but no one who actually cared. It was like an obligatory ceremonial function the meaning of which everyone has forgotten.

There are a lot of “controversies” like that. They tend to be more common in the entertainment world than the sports world — people referencing a “scandalous” thing some singer or actor did which, in reality, scandalized no one — but it happens in sports too. In sports it’s when a convention or custom is not followed or when someone doesn’t otherwise conform to some set of expectations. A lot of the time no one cares at all. It’s all about the politics of recognizing situations in which someone might, in theory, care. Or once did long, long ago.

Maybe someone is genuinely mad at Wade Boggs over this If so, I’d love to hear from that person and wonder why on Earth they’d care. But I sort of feel like such a beast does not exist. And for that I’m pretty glad.

The Cardinals had a “statement loss” yesterday

ST. LOUIS, MO - MAY 25: Manager manager Mike Matheny #22 congratulates Matt Adams #32 of the St. Louis Cardinals as he enters the dugout after scoring a run during the fourth inning against the Chicago Cubs at Busch Stadium on May 25, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images)
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I’ve always been critical of the concept of “statement games” in Major League Baseball. Maybe it matters more in football where there are far fewer games and thus each one means much more, but in baseball a win lasts, at best, 48 hours and usually less. Like Earl Weaver said, we do this every day, lady. When you’re constantly talking, as it were, any one statement is pretty unimportant.

I’ll grant that a “statement win” is a thing players use to motivate or validate themselves, of course. We on the outside can roll our eyes at the notion, but we can’t know the minds of a major league player. If they think that they made a statement and it’s important to them, hey, it’s important to them. I’ll admit, however, that a statement loss is a new one to me:

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Kolten Wong provided the basis of that headline. Here is what he said:

“I think we still made a statement. We were down 6-1 right off the bat. The game before, we were kind of in the same situation. We were tired of it,” second baseman Kolten Wong said. “Our pitchers have been our go-to these past few years. It was time for us to step up and I think we all kind of felt that, too. We just wanted to make this a game and show that we have our pitchers’ backs.”

In context it makes sense. A moral victory, as it were. They got to one of the best pitchers in the game after finding themselves down by several runs thanks to their starting pitching betraying them. The hitters didn’t go into a shell when most folks would excuse them for doing so against a guy like Jake Arrieta.

Makes sense and no judgments here. Moral victories matter. Still, it’s hard not to chuckle at the headline. I can’t remember a big leaguer talking quite that way after a loss.

Julio Urias to be called up, make his MLB debut tomorrow

GLENDALE, AZ - FEBRUARY 20:  Starting pitcher Julio Urias #78 of the Los Angeles Dodgers participates in a spring training workout at Camelback Ranch on February 20, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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The Dodgers have been mulling this for a long time, but they just announced that they plan on calling up top prospect Julio Urias. He’ll be making his major league debut against the Mets tomorrow evening in New York.

Urias is just 19 years-old, but he’s shown that he’s ready for the bigs. In eight Triple-A games this year — seven starts — he’s 4-1 with a 1.10 ERA and a K/BB ratio of 44/8 in 41 innings. He has tossed 27-straight scoreless innings to boot. While the Dodgers and Urias’ agent are understandably wary of giving the young man too much work too soon, he has nothing left to prove at Oklahoma City.

Urias turns 20 in August. Tomorrow night he will become the first teenager to debut in the majors since 2012 when Dylan Bundy, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and Jurickson Profar each made their debuts.