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Entries in Albert Pujols (17)


Soft Stuff Vexing Pujols

Unless you've been in a coma or decided to live like the Amish for a month, you probably know that Albert Pujols' Angels career is off to a hellish start. The $240 million man enters play Thursday with nary a home run in 107 plate appearances and a 55 OPS+ that, as Bob Uecker might say, is just a bit outside his normal range (Pujols' career OPS+ of 169 is seventh-best all time, ranking between Mickey Mantle and Ty Cobb).

Pujols isn't exactly scorching fastballs and sinkers this year, with a .404 slugging percentage against them that is 141 points below his 2011 mark. But that looks prolific next to his performance against "soft stuff -- curveballs, sliders and changeups. Pujols is batting -- and slugging -- .116 against breaking balls and off-speed pitches, compared to last year's .502 slugging percentage. That's one of the ten worst rates among qualified hitters this season:

Lowest slugging percentage vs. "Soft" pitches

BatterSlug Pct.
Mark Reynolds .040
Casey Kotchman .043
Brandon Crawford .048
Jason Kubel .067
Russell Martin .083
Freddy Galvis .097
Shin-Soo Choo .100
Albert Pujols .116
Clint Barmes .129
Carlos Pena .143
MLB Avg. .343


Pujols is scuffling and has yet to record an extra-base hit against soft stuff because he's chasing so many curves, sliders and changes of pace off the plate. Check out his swing rate by pitch location vs. soft pitches in 2011, and then with the Angels so far in 2012:

Pujols' swing rate vs. curveballs, sliders and changeups, 2011

Pujols' swing rate vs. curveballs, sliders and changeups, 2012He went after about 29 percent of soft stuff thrown out of the zone last year, below the 32 percent major league average. This year, though? 44 percent.

Pitchers have thrown Pujols slightly more soft stuff this year (38.8 percent of the time) than last (37.8 percent). Expect that rate to rise further if he keeps on going after so many breakers and changeups in the dirt.


Albert Pujols' Slow Start

Batting .246 with no home runs so far in 2012, Albert Pujols is off to a rough start with his new team.  It is early and Pujols will no doubt eventually make the appropriate adjustments necessary to bust out of this funk.  However, scouts have noticed that Albert has been expanding the strike zone, swinging at pitches he normally avoids.

First here's a look at his slugging percentage heat map from the previous four years compared to this season:

Click image to enlarge.Albert has yet to take advantage of pitches in the heart of the strike zone. This is a truly odd heat map for someone with Pujols' abilities.

Now take a look at his swing rate comparison:

Click image to enlarge.Pujols has so far swung at a higher percentage of pitches out of the strike zone, particularly down and away, up and away, and way up out of the zone.  Between 2008 and 2011, Pujols chased 25.7% of pitches thrown to him that were out of the PitchFX strike zone.  This year he's swinging at 34.9%. 

All those extra swings have resulted in an increase in his strike out rate; 8.9% in 2011 to 12.9% so far in 2012, while his walk rate is down 2.3%.

Pujols is not likely to remain in this slump for long.  More than likely, he will start to become more selective and cut down on chasing pitches.  When that happens, opposing pitchers will have to start throwing to the strike zone more; and the walks, hits and home runs will follow.


Pujols a Halo

Score one for the Mystery Team. First, Albert Pujols appeared headed for South Beach. Then, it looked like he'd re-sign with the Cardinals. But today, the Angels swooped in and signed this generation's greatest player to a 10-year, $254 million deal that includes a full no-trade clause. As if that weren't breath-taking enough, L.A. then doled out five years and $77.5 million to C.J. Wilson. More on Wilson later, but first let's focus on one of the biggest free agent signings. Ever.

Pujols is already one of the game's all-time greats. With 89.1 career Wins Above Replacement through age 31, El Hombre takes a back seat to just Ty Cobb (112.5), Mickey Mantle (101.1), Rogers Hornsby (100.9), Babe Ruth (96.8), Hank Aaron (90.2) and Alex Rodriguez (89.7). His 170 OPS+ trails that of only Ruth (212), Ted Williams (193), Cobb (185), Lou Gehrig (183), Mantle (177), Hornsby (177) and Stan Musial (172). If Pujols had decided to call it quits instead of signing the sport's second-most lucrative contract ever, he'd rank as the 24th-best position player ever, by WAR.

Pujols isn't retiring, of course, and while he remains a superstar and a franchise-altering player, he is in decline. Over the past three years, his average has gone from .327 to .313 to .299, his OBP from .443 to .414 to .366, and his slugging percentage from .658 to .596 to .541. Run scoring has dipped across the game over that period, but his adjusted OPS has gone from 189 in 2009 to 173 in 2010 and 150 this past season.

"Decline" is obviously a relative term here, as Pujols' 150 OPS+ still placed 12th among hitters who qualified for the batting title. When you're a legend, your skills can erode a bit and you're still a stud. But it's still worth asking, what caused Pujols to be merely great in 2011 instead of a slam-dunk MVP? The answer appears to be downtick in fastball slugging caused by more ground balls hit.

In 2009, Pujols led the majors by a wide margin with a .748 slugging percentage against fastballs (including sinkers). His slugging percentage fell nearly 100 points against those pitches in 2010, to .653, but that still ranked 11th among MLB hitters. In 2011, he slugged .545 against fastballs/sinkers. Again, that was still way above average (.431 in '11), but it placed a comparatively modest 39th among big league batters.

Back in 2009, Pujols clobbered any fastball in the upper two thirds of the zone. As his in-play slugging percentage by pitch location (including home runs) shows, low and away was the only save haven for hurlers:

Pujols' in-play slugging percentage vs. fastballs and sinkers, 2009

Pujols still pummeled high fastballs in 2010, but he became more susceptible to pitches thrown below the belt:

Pujols' in-play slugging percentage vs. fastballs and sinkers, 2010

This past year, Pujols' heat map basically flipped from high-and-away to low-and-in. He didn't show as much discipline against fastballs, chasing 30 percent out of the zone compared to 24-25% in past seasons, but that didn't really hurt him as he slugged .523 on out-of-zone heaters (better than in '09 and '10, and 220 points above the MLB average). Pujols' continued decline against fastballs was mainly the product of his struggling to lash pitches high in the zone:

Pujols' in-play slugging percentage vs. fastballs and sinkers, 2011

In a related note, Pujols' ground ball rate increased sharply on fastballs thrown high in the zone. First, take a look at the league average ground ball rate for hitters by pitch location against fastballs. It's what you'd expect: the higher the pitch, the lower the ground ball rate.

Average ground ball rate by pitch location vs. fastballs and sinkersNow, look at Pujols' ground ball rates vs. fastballs by location. He just about never chopped a fastball into the grass on a high pitch in 2009:

Pujols' ground ball rate by pitch location vs. fastballs and sinkers, 2009

He hit a few more grounders on low pitches in 2010, but he continued to loft high fastballs: 

Pujols' ground ball rate by pitch location vs. fastballs and sinkers, 2010In 2011, though, Pujols began rolling over on some fastballs that he previously belted:

Pujols' ground ball rate by pitch location vs. fastballs and sinkers, 2011

His ground ball rate on high fastballs nearly doubled, from 19 percent the previous two seasons to slightly over 35 percent. Pujols went from just about always hitting high fastballs skyward to hitting more grounders than the league average (34 percent). That played a big part in Pujols' overall ground ball rate increasing from 38 percent in 2009 and 2010 to just under 46 percent in 2011.

Pujols' high fastball issues and concern that the Angels just signed him through age 42 aside, it's important to view Pujols' contract in its entirety instead of simply panning it as a deal that will be an albatross at the end. There's little doubt that Pujols won't be worth his salary as he pushes past 40. But could the surplus value (that is, the difference between what his production is worth and what he's being paid) that he provides at the front end of the contract make up for that?

The Hardball Times' Oliver projects Pujols as a 5.7 Win player in 2012. If we use that as our starting point and assume that Pujols declines by a half-win per season, and that the cost of a win (currently around $5 million) increases five percent each season, then Pujols figures to provide the Angels with about $205 million in value over the life of his contract:


That the Angels are willing to pay Pujols $250-$260 million could mean any number of things. Could the club have overestimated the value of a decade of Pujols at first base? Sure. But they could also think that he's more of a six-plus win player at the moment (he'd have to be a 6.4-6.5 WAR player in 2012 for the above calculations to reach $250-$260 million in total value), that his decline phase will be more gradual, or that the value of a win will be higher than the 5% inflation per year I allowed.

There's also the "win/revenue curve" argument to be made. Pujols is a legitimate four-to-five WAR upgrade over the likes of Mark Trumbo/Kendrys Morales. That's huge, and pushes the high-revenue club much closer to the playoffs. Before L.A.'s free agent frenzy, Oliver projected the Angels as eight wins behind the Rangers in the AL West. With an extra 4-5 WAR from Pujols and 3-4 WAR from C.J. Wilson, the Angels are suddenly in a dead heat with or slightly ahead of Texas. The wins that L.A. added to the roster bring them far closer to a playoff berth and the financial windfall (estimated at around $40 million by Baseball Prospectus) that comes with that playoff appearance.

It's near impossible to think of a scenario in which Pujols' mega-deal goes in the history books as a bargain, and the Angels do have to worry about re-signing Howie Kendrick (free agent-eligible after 2012), Erick Aybar and Dan Haren (both under control through 2013). But bad cash tied up with Torii Hunter and Bobby Abreu (a combined $27.5 million in 2012) soon comes off the books, and Vernon Wells' epically bad contract ($21 million annually) expires after 2014. When you consider what Pujols' signing does for the Angels' hopes of contention and that a big chunk of payroll expires in the coming years, it's not a totally crazy contract.