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.

Cardinals will bring back Mike Matheny for the 2017 season

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 16:  Manager Mike Matheny #22 of the St. Louis Cardinals looks on while the umpires review a call against the San Francisco Giants in the top of the third inning at AT&T Park on September 16, 2016 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
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The Cardinals went from winning 100 games last season to 82 entering Wednesday evening’s game, and they might not even make the playoffs. Still, the organization will bring back manager Mike Matheny for the 2017 season, Jose de Jesus Ortiz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports.

Owner Bill DeWitt, Jr. said, “Mike’s done a really good job for us. There’s no thought that we’re going to go in any different direction.”

GM John Mozeliak also expressed his support, saying, “Mike takes a lot of heat, and I’ve defended him and I will continue to. I really feel like some of the things that we’re dealing with aren’t fair to put on the manager.”

Mozeliak continued, “I do feel like all of us are always held accountable for what we do here, so there’s nobody excluded from that. But having said that, I don’t look at him as someone that we are where we are because of that.”

Matheny has received criticism for his bullpen usage, but the Cardinals have only 15 blown saves as a team, the fourth-lowest total in baseball this season.

Pete Mackanin on Phillies’ bullpen: “Somebody else has to [bleeping] step up.”

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JUNE 15: Manager Pete Mackanin #45 of the Philadelphia Phillies makes a pitching change in the eighth inning during a game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Citizens Bank Park on June 15, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Blue Jays won 7-2. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
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The Phillies’ bullpen led to yet another loss on Tuesday. Severino Gonzalez, Luis Garcia, Joely Rodriguez, and David Hernandez combined to allow six runs in five innings, allowing the Braves to come back and win 7-6 after falling behind 6-0 after the first two innings.

The game prior, the Phillies’ bullpen surrendered 14 runs in four innings in a 17-0 loss to the Mets. The game before that, the bullpen yielded four runs in four innings, nearly squandering the Phillies’ 10-0 lead after four innings. And last Thursday, the Phillies had taken an 8-6 lead in the top of the 11th, but Edubray Ramos served up a walk-off three-run home run to Asdrubal Cabrera. It’s been a tough month.

Manager Pete Mackanin ripped the bullpen when speaking to the media after Tuesday’s game. Via Jim Salisbury of CSN Philly:

Neris was going to close for us. I thought about using him with two outs in the eighth. But, at some point, somebody else has to do a (bleeping) job. Somebody else has to (bleeping) step up. In two games now, every reliever I brought in has given up a (bleeping) run. That’s unheard of.

The Phillies currently own the fourth-worst bullpen ERA in baseball at 4.97.  Only the Rockies (5.12), Reds (5.07), and Diamondbacks (4.98) have been worse.

In fairness to the bullpen, aside from Jeanmar Gomez (who lost his job as closer earlier this month) and free agent signee David Hernandez, the bullpen is intentionally comprised of young, inexperienced pitchers as the Phillies are still rebuilding. If the Phillies were aiming for a playoff spot, it would be one thing, but the struggles are to be expected when one throws 24-year-olds into the deep end.