Rasmus takes his lead from first. The pitcher comes set, checks on the runner, and now the pitch. Albert hits the ball sharply to short, over to second for one and then on to first for another double play.
Seems like an almost nightly occurrence. Throw in free agency knocking on the door in November, early season offensive woes by the team, and seemingly un-Albert like performance so far in the 2011 season, you have instant material for whatever side you want to take on Albert vs The Cardinals.
Fortunately, we do have some data that we can look at to see what is going on, and whether Albert’s plate woes are as unprecedented as some would like to claim. Granted, there aren’t many low points in the Pujols career, but there is one that catches the eye – the start to the 2004 season.
What is so interesting about that one ? It is also the first year of his mega-contract (seven years, $100M) where is now playing out his option year. I don’t think that is a coincidence.
Let’s first look at the batting averages, through the first 43 games of each season.
Other than Albert getting off to a quicker start in the first few games, the two are tracking somewhat along the same lines. That should give us a little bit of comfort. OK, maybe more comfort for me because I have already seen the last graphic.
The most important thing to take away from his chart is that we are now in the point in the season where Pujols started getting hot. In other words, it’s not too late for him to turn in another MVP caliber season.
Let’s now look at the types of hits he was getting, and we see a similar trend. Red hot at first and then cooled like the other side of the pillow.
As with the batting average, Albert was starting to pick up his game a bit at this point in the season in 2004. It is also the biggest difference between his 2004 and 2011 season. Yes, Pujols is on a homer drought of late, but it’s the doubles that are more telling. He had hit 13 at this point in 2004, but only 4 so far in 2011. There is our tell, and perhaps the key to all of the double plays. Instead of driving the outside pitch to the opposite field for a double, he’s rolling the bat over on top of them, grounding into a double of another sort – the dreaded double play.
To complete the trifecta, let’s compare his on-base percentage in the two years.
Fueled by some early season power in 2004, Albert did get more walks than he is getting today, but in the recent weeks he has closed the gap. As his 2011 OBP was dangling around .300, it was clear he was swinging at pitched he didn’t in previous years. That fact was not lost on National League pitchers, who have also learned to challenge him inside.
It won’t take long for them to change that strategy if Albert starts launching inside pitches down into the left field corner or over the left field wall.
So not all is doom and gloom after all. It turns out that he’s not all that far off his 2004 pace, so maybe he can reclaim some of that and finish with another MVP-like season. If so, it would help to know how Pujols did in that season. He’s seven years older, so if there too many Herculean moments, we need to figure those into our expectations.
First the raw data.
From Game 45 to the end of the season, the Pujols slash line is .351/ .492/ .689. He also hit 38 doubles, 34 home runs and drove in 95 runs. In case you are wondering, he also hit into 13 double plays.
How did he get there ? Time for another graph.
There were a couple of Herculean moments, and one of them happened at about this time in his 2004 season. To paraphrase one of my favorite TV characters, Chairman Takeshi Kaga from the original Iron Chef, “If memory serves, Albert is about to head into Kaufmann Stadium where the baseball god have always been kind to the young man.”
Indeed. Against Kansas City, Albert has hit .383 / .481 / .720 with 14 doubles, 15 home runs and 51 RBIs, with most of that damage being done at the K.
Suddenly, I’m not worrying so much about Albert Pujols.