With over one-quarter of the 2011 MLB season in the books, St. Louis Cardinals fans, baseball fans and scores of good old-fashioned Albert Pujols-ologists are puzzled: What is wrong with No. 5?
The consensus best hitter, and best player, in the game is putting up rather pedestrian numbers in his first 44 games—numbers not befitting the greatest hitter that many of us have ever watched ply the fickle trade of hitting a baseball.
Certainly, other players—including established stars such as Carl Crawford, Dan Uggla, Vernon Wells and Jorge Posada—are doing battle with injuries, the Mendoza Line and other controversies, but Albert Pujols hitting .269 with meager (for him) production sends greater shock waves through the baseball world that he has so dominated.
It was probably unfair for sports wags (I'm not referring to the WAGs that populate this site) to have labeled Pujols "The Machine," as he is subject to the same thoughts and emotions as mere mortals. We think.
But how else does one go about trying to comprehend the production of somebody who entered MLB (with no prior big league at-bats) in 2001 at the age of 21 and proceeded to average .330 with 41 homers, 123 RBI and 119 runs?
Prior to this season, Albert's average season was unreachable for almost every other baseball superstar, and even his worst year would be a career year for a majority of All-Star players.
This unabashed Pujols fan would love to see El Hombre start tearing it up again; it would restore order to his world and to the universe of other baseball fans.
Indeed, this lifelong Phillies fan would also love to see him finish his career as a Cardinal and continue to put up once-in-a-generation numbers.
Having said all this in truth, here are five statistics—compared to his usual, amazingly consistent numbers—that tell the tale of Albert Pujols' puzzling 2011.
I had to double-check (and triple-check) this stat, but here it is.
In 44 games, the great Albert Pujols has been intentionally walked a grand total of one time.
Chew on that a moment: That projects to four times this season—and that's rounding up.
For comparison's sake, Pujols led the league in intentional free passes each of the last three seasons, averaging 34 intended freebies per year. Essentially, he has been the most (intentionally) walked player in baseball ever since Barry Bonds retired.
Of course, he now has greater threats hitting behind him—both Matt Holliday and a rejuvenated Lance Berkman are off to red-hot starts. Even so, the number of times that pitchers have decided to pitch to Albert rather than walk him is unlike anything we have seen.
Pujols' total walks (18) project to only 66 for the season, which would set a career low. This is a man who walked over 100 times in each of his last three seasons.
Pujols has also only struck out 18 times, so whiffs have not really been a problem.
El Hombre, by the way, has amassed more walks than strikeouts in each of his last nine seasons—all but his rookie campaign.
Albert Pujols is, usually, a rangy and sure-handed first baseman—arguably the best defensive first sacker in the league.
He was rewarded with his second Gold Glove last year, and he did not win it (like many do) solely because he's the best hitter and biggest name at the position.
In 2010, Pujols committed only four errors in 157 games. This season, he has been charged with five blunders, which projects to 18 for the year.
Albert has never been credited with more than 14 errors in a full season at first base.
Check out this chart of how many doubles Pujols has smoked in each of his first 10 seasons.
2011: 15 (projected)
Okay, here's a tough question: Which of these numbers is the outlier?
Could it be that pitcher Kyle Lohse, that noted Tony La Russa prankster/impersonator, has been wearing No. 5 for the Redbirds this year?
No player is perfect, not even the pre-2011 Albert Pujols.
Even the best players are susceptible to hitting into the occasional twin killing. If you step into the box with a man on first and fewer than two outs, hit the ball sharply and don't streak down the line like Michael Bourn with his helmet on fire, you will kill a rally or two.
For his career, Albert averages about 20 GIDP and did so 23 times in both 2009 and 2010.
This season, he has done so with much greater frequency—13 times.
That projects to 48 rally-killers this season. Albert's career high in this fun category is 27, which led the NL in 2007.
Just for more fun, I looked up the stats of former Hall of Fame (mostly played for the Cincinnati Reds) catcher Ernie Lombardi. Lombardi fit the profile (hard-hitting, but slow and lumbering) of a potential double-play machine, and he led the NL four times in this dubious department.
Lombardi's career high was 30.
Oh yes, something strange is going on in St. Louis.
Pujols' ever-popular slash line for 2011 (I will use BA / OBP / slugging percentage / OPS) is .269/.337/.415/.752
Most would regard these as average numbers for an average player. They are not the numbers produced by living legends who are only 31 years of age.
These numbers would not look so out of whack if the future Hall of Famer was a notoriously slow starter. He's not. In fact, Albert's early-season numbers are generally in line with how he produces over the course of the entire season.
He's the machine, remember?
Here were the slash lines for Pujols after games of May 18 for the last three seasons:
Given his past early-season production, a line of .269/.337/.415/.752 looks ludicrously out of place.
Again: We are talking about Albert Pujols here. The man who usually leads the NL (if not MLB) in almost every meaningful offensive stat has 2011 numbers that project to:
Batting average of .269: He is sixth on the Cardinals, a team that has five different players above .300.
26 homers: By far a career low and second on his team.
92 RBI (third on the Cardinals): Another career low for a man who averages over 120 and has never finished below 100.
99 runs: Albert is fourth on his team, and this would match his career low, set in his off season (Albert's OPS was only .997, fourth in the NL) of 2007.
It may be too early to panic over Pujols, as he is only 31, and it would be folly to count him out of even being in MVP contention by season's end.
Still, it is just surreal to see a man who is fifth in MLB history in OPS (behind four fairly potent left-handed batters named Ruth, Williams, Gehrig and Bonds) in need of a hot streak to match the OPS put up by the likes of Jonathan Herrera, Darwin Barney and Cameron Maybin.
One does not know how much Pujols is pressing because of his lingering contract situation, but this is a man who has always performed well in pressure situations. His career late-inning and postseason numbers would corroborate that.
Perhaps he is playing through an injury, but he has posted MVP campaigns while not 100 percent.
All we baseball fans—most of us Albert Pujols fans—know is that something is terribly wrong with our universe after 44 games of the 2011 season.
Here is hoping that El Hombre bounces back like the machine he has always been and restores some much-needed order to this crazy world once again.
For more information on Matt Goldberg’s new books (Wordapodia, Volume One and All That Twitters is Not Goldberg), as well as writing, speaking and interview requests, please e-mail: email@example.com or contact him via his Bleacher Report homepage.