What's eating Albert Pujols?
Allow me to sum up Albert Pujols' season in three very short paragraphs.
In the beginning, it was bad. Pujols didn't hit a home run until the sixth of May, and he was hitting just .212/.248/.288 with a single home run and 14 RBI on May 15.
In the middle, it was very, very good. From May 16 through the end of August, Pujols hit .322/.390/.646 with 28 homers and 77 RBI in 89 games. That kind of production spaced out over a full 162-game season equates to a 51-homer, 141-RBI campaign.
Now, at the end of it all, things are bad again. Pujols is hitting .250/.267/.409 with no homers and four RBI in 10 September games.
It's all happening pretty quietly too, mainly because Pujols' September slump, such as it is, is not killing the Angels. They've lost two straight to the Oakland A's in Anaheim to open the week, but they still have a record of 7-3 in September and they're only 2.5 games off the pace in the American League wild card hunt.
Here's the big question, though: How much longer can the Angels keep winning games without more production from their $240 million first baseman?
If the last two games are any indication, probably not that long. Pujols is 1-for-9 so far in the Angels' four-game showdown against the A's, with the one hit being an RBI single in the ninth inning of the Angels' 6-5 loss on Tuesday night. They dropped a close game on Monday night too, losing to the A's by the final of 3-1.
Pujols isn't to blame for either loss, obviously, but let's not cut him too much slack. When Pujols is swinging the bat well, the odds of the Angels losing a given game by one or two runs go way down. That's the kind of run differential that Pujols can account for all on his own when he has the Angels on his back.
And right now, the Angels need Pujols to put the team on his back. Torii Hunter, Kendrys Morales and Vernon Wells (of all people) are swinging the bats well at the moment, but Mark Trumbo's bat has gone cold and even Mike Trout has been human lately. Trumbo is hitting just .182/.238/.250 since the first of August, and Trout is hitting .264 with a .746 OPS over his last 13 games.
Furthermore, the competition isn't about to get any easier. After they're finished with the A's, the Angels will take on a scrappy Kansas City Royals team and a Chicago White Sox team that's fighting for the AL Central title. Also on the docket for the Angels down the stretch are two series each against the Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners, who are 32-23 since the All-Star break.
The Angels will be fine if Trumbo and Trout wake up while Hunter, Morales and Wells stay hot, but there's no telling what's going to happen if Pujols stays cold at the plate. The Angels have a deep lineup, but Pujols is the glue who holds it all together.
Just ask Mike Scioscia.
"No way our offense jumps up to where it has without Albert," said the Angels manager recently, via the Los Angeles Times, referring to the fact that his team leads MLB in runs scored since the All-Star break. "I don't think anybody in here is underestimating what Albert has done."
As great as the Angels' offense has been since the break, the effect that Pujols' slump has had on the Angels so far this month is plainly evident. They rank 12th in MLB in runs scored in September with 45.
The Angels' offense won't start clicking again until Pujols starts clicking again. Only he knows what's truly "wrong" with him, but the signs are there that he may be pressing a little bit.
One trend that's carried over from August to September is that Pujols isn't taking many walks. He walked only five times in August in 100 plate appearances, a walk rate of an even five percent. Thus far in September, he's walked only once in 45 plate appearances, a walk rate of a mere 2.2 percent.
It was easy to overlook Pujols' low walk rate in August because he was hitting .312 with a .366 ISO (isolated power) and a ridiculous HR/FB rate of 25 percent, according to FanGraphs. When he was getting his pitches, he wasn't missing them.
He's missing pitches now. In addition to a .250 batting average, Pujols is sporting a .159 ISO and an infield-fly ball percentage of 23.5. Instead of driving balls, he's popping a lot of pitches straight up in the air. He hasn't hit this many pop-ups since April and May, which, needless to say, is not a good sign.
The bright side, in case you're looking for one, is that things could be a lot worse.
Pujols isn't missing pitches right now, but at least he's making contact. His 8.9 strikeout percentage in September is actually an improvement from where he was in July and August, and his line-drive rate has increased from 13.6 percent in August to 17.5 percent in September. The single he hit in the ninth inning of Tuesday night's game was a bullet, and he already has seven doubles this month to match the totals he posted in July and August.
So despite the fact all signs point towards Pujols pressing a little bit at the plate, there's not much to suggest that both his swing and his approach are as out of whack as they were in April and May. There's no need for the Angels to go and fire any hitting coaches.
On the contrary, the best thing for them right now is to remain patient. Pujols should be left to his own devices.
We know that Pujols will benefit from a relaxed environment because of what he did in June, July and August when all eyes were on Mike Trout. While Trout was hitting .347/.411/.601 from the first of June through the end of August, Pujols was hitting .323/.391/.635 in that same time span. As good as Trout was at the plate, Pujols was even better.
If this is a sign that Pujols is at his best when he's feeding off Trout (snicker), then the Angels can avoid panicking for the time being. Trout hasn't been so great over the last few weeks, but he's got a modest five-game hitting streak going in which he boasts a .389 batting average. He still has plenty of gas left in his tank.
And Pujols has plenty of gas left in his own tank. He just needs a kick start, and he still has plenty of time to give himself one.
Once he gets rolling again, the Angels will get rolling again. Count on it.
Special thanks to Baseball-Reference.com for the stats.
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