Does Albert Pujols Still Have Hope of Ever Returning to MLB Stardom?

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Does Albert Pujols Still Have Hope of Ever Returning to MLB Stardom?
AP Images

After missing the final two months of the 2013 regular season due to injury, Albert Pujols is out to prove this year that he’s still the same guy who won three NL Most Valuable Player awards in a five-year span.

Pujols was, without question, the most productive hitter in baseball during his time with the Cardinals (2001 to 2011), as his average season consisted of a .328/.420/.617 batting line, 41 doubles, 40 home runs, 121 RBI and a 64/89 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Pujols continued to mash in 2012, his first season with the Angels, batting .285/.343/.516 with 50 doubles, 30 home runs and 105 RBI. But he also recorded more strikeouts (76) than walks (52) for the first time since his 2001 rookie campaign.

Last year, Pujols simply wasn’t himself. He struggled out of the gate—at least by his standards—with a .762 OPS and four home runs in April/March, followed by a .703 OPS and four more long balls in May.

As the summer unfolded, Pujols showed signs of finding himself at the plate, posting a .788 OPS with five homers in June and .831 OPS with four home runs in July. However, July also marked the end of Pujols’ potential resurgence, as he played in only 19 games before landing on the disabled list with a season-ending foot injury that had bothered him for some time.

Overall, Pujols turned in the worst offensive performance of his otherwise remarkable career, batting .258/.330/.437 with 19 doubles, 17 home runs, 64 RBI and a 55/40 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 99 games.

Besides last season, Pujols had been one of baseball’s healthier players, playing at least 143 games in each season from 2001 to 2012. He also played at least 154 games in a season nine times in 12 years.

There’s no question that Pujols’ injury affected his ability to hit for power in 2013; we don’t need advanced metrics to know that he was in pain. Anybody who watched Pujols last season could tell he was hurting based on how he winced with each swing and struggled to run the bases. However, the fact that he still hit 17 home runs in 443 plate appearances was impressive.

Pujols had a partial tear of the plantar fascia in his left foot, meaning that every time the right-handed hitter strode at the plate, he put a tremendous amount of stress on his front side and aggravated the injury. As a result, he wasn’t able to explode with his lower half as he had in previous years, and in turn it made him more susceptible to good velocity on the inner half of the plate.

Pujols was extremely pull-happy against fastballs in 2012, posting the highest spray angle (9.17) of his career (or at least since the data’s inception in 2007) against the pitch. He also pulled more breaking balls (14.92) and off-speed pitches (17.90) than he had in any previous season.

Courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net

In 2013, Pujols continued to pull secondary offerings at a high rate. However, his spray angle against fastballs declined considerably, from 9.17 to 3.92, which can be attributed to the impact of his aforementioned foot injury.

It’s difficult to analyze Pujols’ hitting tendencies this season based on a 15-game sample, but so far he’s been pulling basically everything. Yes, it’s a product of him finally being healthy and trusting his lower half, but it also suggests that these days, Pujols, who has extraordinary plate coverage, might be more comfortable and confident employing a strict, pull-oriented approach. Pujols will still use the opposite field this season and moving forward simply because he’s an outstanding hitter, but his primary focus will be getting a pitch to turn on and drive with authority.

Now 34 years old, Pujols’ once-blinding bat speed isn’t what it used to be—which is understandable. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still impressive and produces lots of hard contact; but his reliance on sheer strength has become increasingly apparent in recent years. Therefore, it would make sense that Pujols is actively trying to pull more balls this season, as it represents his greatest strength at this point in his career.

If Pujols can stay healthy this season, then he should be able to mostly return to form and hit 30-plus homers with roughly 100 RBI. However, Pujols’ pull-oriented approach will likely detract from his batting average, meaning his days as a perennial .300-plus hitter are likely behind him.

That’s been the case in the early going this season, as Pujols will enter Friday’s game against the Tigers batting .266/.338/.516 with four doubles, four bombs and 10 RBI through 15 games. His four home runs came during a 10-game hitting streak, which was snapped on Tuesday night against Oakland. Pujols bounced back on Wednesday, though, going 3-for-5 with a walk and RBI.

Albert Pujols: 2014 Projections
G PA AVG HR RBI BB% K% OPS
PECOTA - 553 .285 27 86 11.0% 11.6% .882
Steamer 140 625 .275 31 95 9.2% 11.2% .850
ZIPS 128 566 .274 27 84 8.7% 10.9% .828

FanGraphs.com; BaseballProspectus.com

The major projection models are in agreement on what to expect from Pujols this season: .275 to .285 batting average, upwards of 30 home runs and 85-plus RBI. However, each respective model takes his missed time last season into account and therefore projects his numbers based on less than a full season.

So if Pujols stays healthy and plays in roughly 150 games, he should blow past those projections and reassert himself as one of baseball’s premier first basemen.  

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