I already two recurring columns per week here at MWAH. I really don’t want to do more than that so that you can all continue getting a variety of content here. However, I feel like am inadvertently about to stumble into another regular feature that I shall tentatively entitle “Is Albert Pujols unlucky or in steep decline?”
It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, so maybe I’ll workshop the title before we do this again next month. Or maybe Albert will start hitting and we won’t have to revisit this topic for the fourth month in a row.
When we last checked in with our hero, the story was that Albert Pujols was back! He was smashing homers and had a solid average to boot. My concern at the time was that Pujols was doing this despite a low BABIP and a groundball heavy batted ball profile. There were two ways that this could go: the BABIP would rise and grounders would decrease and Pujols would continue to look reborn or his BABIP and batted ball profile would remain the same, dragging down his production.
Somehow Albert chose a mix of the two. That wasn’t supposed to be an option, but he figured it out somehow. The average definitely came down all the way to .245. The BABIP remains ugly at .227. However, the batted profile, while still not great, has improved. He’s now at 45% grounders, 38.7% flyballs, 16.2% line drives and 17.9% pop-ups. Now, that still isn’t a great profile, but it is much closer to his career norms than it was when he was at 51% grounders at the end of April.
So what the hell is going on? Pujols is still hitting for power, but he now has the sixth-worst BABIP in all of baseball. Plugging his batted ball profile into an xBABIP calculator says his BABIP should be in the .280 to .305 range (depending which calculation you trust). The conclusion that most people jump to when they see a low BABIP and a much higher xBABIP is that it is just bad luck. That might well be the case here, but BABIP is kind of weird, so I’m not going to just take that on faith
There are certainly a few things that do suggest luck is a factor. Pujols is still in the top 25 of hitters in terms of hard-hit ball average, according to Mark Simon of ESPN:
Who is hitting the ball hard most often? The top 60 — notables: tie at top, Lowrie, Lucroy, Smoak, Seth Smith & more pic.twitter.com/tXxQIyU8M0
— Mark Simon (@msimonespn) June 9, 2014
Hard-hit balls are obviously good, even if I’m not entirely certain how those determinations are made. That falls in line though with the notion that Albert can still drive the ball and if that is the case one would expect things to break in his favor before long.
Of course, maybe his power is fading somewhat. So far this year, his average flyball distance is 279.58 feet. Last year when his feet were functionally useless, his distance was 287.37 feet. In 2012 he was at 281.09 feet, so he isn’t all that far off from where he was when he was still quite productive. Granted, he isn’t over 300 feet like he was in his prime (and in St. Louis, not the Anaheim marine layer), but it isn’t as if the distance has fallen through the floor like it did with Josh Hamilton last year.
So there is ample evidence that Pujols can still make good hard contact. We also know he isn’t getting himself out by hitting balls out of the zone as his out-of-zone swing rate is his lowest as an Angel and his out-of-zone contact rate is his lowest since 2005. That rules out the “he chases too much” theory, which was his problem in 2012.
All roads seem to be leading back to that batted ball profile. The most obvious issue is that Albert is hitting way too many pop-ups. That is definitely a big contributor here, but it isn’t the lone culprit. All those grounders really stick out, even more so than the pop-ups.
If we look at those grounders, specifically, we see that Pujols is hitting just .170 on grounders. That’s a shockingly low number. Even last year when he was running so poorly that the great Sam Miller devoted a weekly column to timing Pujols’ glacial sprints to first were, his groundball batting average was .203. When he was healthy in 2012, he was at .207. Again, this could just be lots of bad luck, but it might be something more problematic.
While I don’t have stats to back this up, it feels as if defenses are shifting against Pujols more than ever. Shifting has increased league-wide, so this shouldn’t be a surprise. The problem with that is that the shift really seems to be working against Albert.
There aren’t a whole lot of grounders getting through there. Nothing is going for a hit up the middle and he has quite a few “deep” groundball outs. How many of those balls would go for a hit without the shift is hard to say, but it is pretty clear it is a problem. Of course, Albert is part of the problem himself. He’s hitting very few grounders the other way, playing right into the hands of the shift.
I admit, I was ready to write this off as part of Albert’s decline, but I am now at least willing to consider there to be a good chance that Pujols can rebound from this. Better luck will help and if his batted ball profile continues to regress to his norm, the results should eventually follow. It will happen a lot faster though if Albert can make some adjustments and try and go the other way more to avoid the shift which has seemingly held him back so far. Then again, Pujols seems like the stubborn type.