After posting the lowest batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS+ and home run output of his career in 2012, Albert Pujols came into this season searching for a rebound year.
Considering that he posted a .312/.374/.589 line after May 15 last season, it would seem that a good April and early May was the only thing separating Pujols from being his old self at the plate.
Early on in 2013, there are encouraging signs that he's still one of the greatest hitters of all time.
Through 17 games this month, Pujols has a .392 wOBA, 156 wRC+ and .321 BABIP. All three of those figures are better than anything he's posted since 2010, his last full, healthy season in St. Louis.
His hot start at the dish has masked an issue brewing for Los Angeles. When Pujols signed his 10-year, $240 million deal prior to the 2012 season, it was understood that he could eventually become a designated hitter.
Eventually could become the present.
The 33-year-old slugger is suffering from plantar fasciitis, regulating him to DH duty for the fourth consecutive game on Sunday. According to Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times, the pain is becoming an issue for the three-time Most Valuable Player.
"I'm dying," Pujols said Sunday. "It's hurting real bad."
Despite the pain, L.A. is receiving tremendous production at the plate from its highest-paid player. With a 16.7 percent walk rate and 7.7 percent strikeout rate, Pujols is locked in at the plate right now. At this time last year, he was swinging at more than 30 percent of pitches out of the strike zone for the first time in his career. That number has normalized back to his career marks of the mid- to upper-20's.
While this injury may debilitate the swing of many players, don't forget that Pujols has played through it virtually his entire career. Bleacher Report's injury expert Will Carroll and I spoke this morning and he finds it hard to believe he won't be able to hit if in the lineup.
"Pujols has been dealing with this injury since his rookie season, which is stunning. Normally a career-ender, the painful inflammation in the sole of the foot has been controlled with treatment over the years, leaving Pujols to one of the most productive decades we have ever seen from a hitter.
"The question now is, what changed? Is he simply not able to play with the pain, or did it get worse due to some event or action, such as playing through a knee injury last year?
"Pujols has always been able to deal with injury—he's spent most of his career dealing with one condition or another—so it's difficult to say that something is going to have a significant effect. Imagine what he might have done if he was healthy."
If the injury is getting worse, Pujols may have to rest on the disabled list for a brief period of time. If he can continue to play through the pain, the numbers should be there.
When assessing a rebound season, or continuation of stellar play from mid-May 2012 through today, it's important to clarify what kind of rebound we're looking for.
Pujols may no longer be capable of producing 7-9 WAR seasons because of days off and regular time spent as designated hitter. The counting stats (hits, home runs, runs batted in) will likely fall well short of the 200, 40, 120 that fans were used to seeing throughout the last decade.
On the other hand, we'll still very likely to see Pujols produce like a star on an at-bat by at-bat basis. An on-base percentage in the .380s, slugging percentage in the .510s, and walk-to-strikeout ratio bettered by only the likes of Joey Votto are all attainable despite the pain.
If the pain is impacting his performance at the plate, it's hard to tell early in 2013. The disabled list remains an option if the pain is too unbearable, but don't count out Pujols continuing to put up tremendous numbers at the plate. He just may not be able to play first base on a regular basis this season.
Are you worried about Albert Pujols breaking down? Comment below!