One of the most difficult factors to try to account for in projecting player performance is the league switch, particularly when it comes to hitters. We tend to think of pitchers having an advantage in facing a largely new set of hitters when they switch circuits. It generally works the opposite way with hitters. Still, I don’t follow any general rule of thumb here when I’m doing my annual projections.
In 2011, we saw Adam Dunn completely lose it upon switching leagues, turning in one of the worst collapses of all time. Adrian Gonzalez and Mark Reynolds, on the other hand, handled the jump from the NL to the AL just fine. Gonzalez obviously seems like a better comp for Pujols than the others. Miguel Cabrera is another. He got off to a slow start in the AL, hitting a modest .284/.349/.489 in the first half of 2008 after being traded from the Marlins to the Tigers. In the 3 1/2 years since, he’s been one of the AL’s very best hitters.
Of course, Pujols has been fading anyway. His OPS dropped from 1.101 in 2009 to 1.011 in 2010 to .906 in 2011. He did play a lot better after a slow start last season, hitting .322/.388/.623 in his final 369 at-bats. That’s the same 1.011 OPS he had in a full season in 2010.
There’s also the ballpark to take into account. New Busch Stadium has been tough on power hitters since opening in 2006. In fact, over the last three years, it has the worst park factor for home runs of any NL stadium, PETCO included. Plus, it’s been even more difficult on right-handed hitters than left-handed hitters.
Angel Stadium is no hitter’s park, but it should treat Pujols somewhat better than his old home did. Over the last three years, it’s ranked 11th of the 14 AL parks for run scoring, putting it about on par with Busch in the NL. However, it’s ranked sixth in the AL for homers and it’s somewhat favors right-handed hitters over lefties.
One more factor worth looking at is Pujols’ overall play versus the AL. He’s taken part in almost a full season’s worth of interleague games in his career and hit .348/.438/.632 with 39 homers in 541 at-bats. That’s slightly better than his overall career line of .328/.420/.617.
So, Pujols being Pujols, I think he’ll do just fine in Anaheim right away. At 32, his very best years are probably behind him, but he should contend for a couple of more MVP awards before he’s done. In 2012, at least a modest rebound seems likely. My projection last year called for him to .322/.435/.609 with 40 homers and 119 RBI. For 2012, I’ll go with a slightly lower average, but similar power numbers. I’m thinking something like .310 with 42 homers and 115 RBI.