Where Did Pujols Go?


Above is Albert Pujols's first (and, to date, only) home run as an Angel. It shouldn't be too big of a deal, but it is because it came on May 6. Really, it's not that big of a deal that Pujols hit a home run on May 6. The big deal is that Pujols did not hit a home run before May 6.

I was on Twitter last week*, and Kevin Goldstein posted a simple thought: Has anyone tried to figure out what's wrong with Albert Pujols?

*Actually I'm on Twitter all the time, and that included last week.

I'm not sure anyone has. So, I'm about to fix that.

To start with, I took Albert's batted ball profile, and did a regression to the mean of sorts. Since Pujols has been in the majors for a decade, he has a large sample size of information for how he fares on different types of hits. We can see his batting average on line drives, fly balls, and ground balls, and more advanced things like his double and home run rates on these different types of hits. Below is a table showing Pujols's current numbers, and what we'd expect from his current batted ball profile, based on his career hit rates for grounders, fly balls, and line drives:

Actual 2012
  Expected 2012
At Bats
121
121
Hits
23
41
Doubles
8
8
Home Runs
1
7
AVG
.190
.339
OBP
.228
.370
SLG
.281
.579
OPS
.509
.949

The results really surprised me. This projection doesn't alter Albert's strikeout or walk rates at all, both of which are out of whack by Pujols standards. Even without regressing either of those important rates, we would expect a rather Pujolsian line from his batted ball profile.

Two things jump out of the data. Albert Pujols is missing lots of singles and home runs - or, alternatively, despite a disastrous start, Pujols has as many doubles as we would expect.

Most of Albert's singles come from ground balls. Pujols is hitting .071 on ground balls so far this year. Albert has lost a couple steps for sure, but this is simply an unsustainable rate. He's a career .264 hitter on ground balls. It's conceivable that infielders have a better idea of how to shift against him, and maybe also play deeper to get more range with his slowing foot speed. However, that insanely low batting average can't hold up. Pujols is a victim of some bad luck.

Most of Albert's doubles come on line drives. Pujols still has a good line drive rate so, not surprisingly, the double rate is where it should be. However, his batting average is "only" .600 in liners, which is off his career mark of .772.**

**All batters post insane batting averages on line drives, FYI.

All of Pujols's home runs come on fly balls, obviously. It's equally obvious that way fewer of his fly balls are leaving the yard. However, interestingly enough, Pujols's BABIP on fly balls is .108 this year, which is ever so slightly above his career mark, .102. Home runs do not count towards BABIP, since they are not balls in the field of play. So, Pujols isn't getting unlucky with his fly balls. They simply haven't travelled as far as we're accustomed to seeing out of him, but the added fly balls in play have acted like all the other fly balls in play he's hit in his career.

Albert Pujols's early struggles might be surprisingly easy to explain. His plate discipline has deserted him. Actually, it slipped a ton last season, and has continued to erode at an alarming rate in 2012. Pujols has swung at 38.7% pitches outside the strike zone, 59.4% in the zone, and 48.0% of pitches thrown to him overall. That would be a career high, career low, and career high, respectively, if those rates hold. In other words, Pujols is swinging more than ever while also swinging at fewer pitches in the strike zone than he ever has.

Pujols is swinging at junk, and he's good enough to hit it. Balls are typically tougher to hit hard than strikes. So, is it all that surprising that Pujols is suddenly getting way fewer hits on ground balls and liners, and that he's not hitting fly balls as far? All of Albert's hits are likely softer than ever before, because Albert is reaching for pitches he used to take.

Maybe Pujols is pressing to show he is worth the gargantuan deal he signed in the offseason. Albert is probably adjusting to all the new pitchers he's seeing too. There are reasons to think that he might need some time to settle in, and as he gets more comfortable, he might start approaching at-bats more like the machine we saw in St. Louis.

However, Albert Pujols is at an age where he might be naturally losing power, so it might be unreasonable to expect 40 home runs from him again. His O-Swing% has gone up, Z-Swing% gone down, and overall Swing% gone up consistently since 2009 too. This plate discipline issue has been brewing for years, and it seems to be accelerating.

Pujols will eventually get some more grounders through the infield, so his batting average will go up. Warmer weather will get some more fly balls over the fence as well. However, luck and weather aren't enough to explain all of Albert Pujols's struggles. It seems like he could re-calibrate his plate discipline and find himself again, but it's not a given he will do that.