The Angel lineup has hardly been the unstoppable juggernaut that many projected it would be coming into the 2013 season. There are a multitude of reasons for this but one of them has not been Albert Pujols, a nice change from the Halos' early offensive struggles from the season before. In fact, it appears that one of the unnoticed positives from an otherwise dismal April for the Angels is that Albert Pujols is showing signs of a bounceback season.
Now, calling it a bounceback after a year in which Pujols hit 30 homers and posted a .394 wOBA is probably not the normal notion of a bounceback season, but we are talking in relative terms here. While Albert was still very productive in 2012, one of the big storylines underscoring his numbers was a stark decline in his plate discipline numbers.
2012 was a year in which Pujols swung at a career-high percentage of pitches, 65.1%, with much of that spike coming in the form of an alarming propensity for chasing pitches out of the zone. Not only was this the third consecutive season that The Machine's plate discipline numbers trended towards being less disciplined, it was also a huge jump in a bad way for those numbers. As a result, there were many a question asked about how quickly Pujols might be headed for an overall decline in his productivity.
Well, good news for the Angels, it appears that reports of Albert's demise have been greatly exaggerated, well demise of his approach at the plate, anyway. Thus far in 2013, Pujols has looked a lot like his old self. Maybe not his old, back in his prime self, but at least the hitter he was three years ago when the erosion of his discipline began.
Overall, Pujols is swinging much less, offering at 43.4% of pitches, down over 4% from last season and almost on par with the swing frequency he showed in 2009, a year in which he hit 47 home runs and finished with a 1.101 OPS. More importantly, his swing rate on balls out of the zone is down eight full percentage points from last season, sitting at 28.3%, which is about where he was in 2010. Thus far that has translated to Albert carrying what would be the highest walk percentage, 17.5%, of his career if it held up and the lowest strikeout rate, a microscopic 4.8%, of his career. What that indicates is that the old uber-patient Pujols might be back, which would be great news for an otherwise free-swinging lineup.
There are some caveats to consider here though. The most obvious of which is that we are only dealing with a sample of 63 plate appearances here. Swing rate numbers stabilize pretty quickly, but we would probably want to wait at least the end of April before we officially declare that Pujols has exorcized himself of the demon with an itchy trigger finger that posssessed him last season. The other is that the already small sample size is slightly tainted by the three unintentional walks that Albert drew in Texas. While it isn't crazy for people to pitch around Pujols, that string of games sticks out as an outlier because of Josh Hamilton's exaggerated struggles at the time. Basically, I wouldn't count on Albert to keep being issued an intentional free pass at a rate of once every four or five games over the course of the rest of the season.
Beyond that though, it isn't exactly clear how much of this renewed patience is because of changes he has made in the batter's box as opposed to pitchers treating him differently. Let's be honest, Josh Hamilton may not be whiffing every other at-bat anymore, but he isn't knocking the cover off the ball either, so teams might be more willing to be careful with Albert since Hamilton isn't all that scary right now. Similarly, Pujols hasn't had a whole lot of opportunities to hit with runners in scoring position in a close game. Just 17 of his plate appearances have come with runners in scoring position and 11 of his plate appearances have been in high leverage situations. How much those to sets intersect, I don't know, but even if it is all 11 that's still not very much.
Maybe this won't last once Mike Trout starts setting the table like he did last season and Hamilton start driving in runs like he used to, but for now, it looks like all the concern over the rapid erosion of Pujols ability at the plate might be exaggerated, and that can only be good news given that he still has eight seasons left on his contract after this year.