The biggest signing in the history of the Angels, Albert Pujols career as a Halo got off to one of the rockiest starts in the history of rocky starts. While he repaired much of the damage by season's end, questions remain as to whether or not Albert's best days are already well behind him.
2012 Stats: 670 PA, .285 AVG, .343 OBP, .516 SLG, 85 R, 30 HR, 105 RBI, 8 SB, 1 CS, 76 K, .360 wOBA, 141 OPS+, 3.9 fWAR
2013 ZiPS Projections: 638 PA, .285 AVG, .359 OBP, .516 SLG, 88 R, 31 HR, 94 RBI, 10 SB, 2 CS, 72 K, .354 wOBA, 103 OPS+, 5.3 fWAR
2013 Bill James Projections: 690 PA, .305 AVG, .394 OBP, .564 SLG, 105 R, 38 HR, 117 RBI, 9 SB, 4 CS, 73 K, .398 wOBA
2013 CAIRO Projections: 672 PA, .284 AVG, .359 OBP, .517 SLG, 95 R, 33 HR, 111 RBI, 10 SB, 2 CS, 76 K, .374 wOBA
2013 MWAH Projections*: 685 PA, .300 AVG, .361 OBP, .533 SLG, 95 R, 33 HR, 121 RBI, 7 SB, 4 CS, 83 K, .385 wOBA
*The MWAH projections are simply my best guess based off my own personal opinion and research (my wOBA calculation is approximate)
2012 in Objective Review:
There is no sugarcoating it, Albert Pujols couldn't have started his Angels' career any worse short of being caught violating Gene Autry's grave. With the national spotlight on him after signing a $240 million contract, Pujols immediately became an almost daily story on ESPN because he just couldn't hit a home run or much of anything at all. His home run drought last until May 6th as he trudged through April to the tune of a .570 OPS positioning himself to possibly become the biggest free agent bust of all time. But things got better in May and by June, he was back to posting the superhuman kind of numbers the Angels were paying him for. It wasn't quite a happy ending though as Pujols began to struggle with a strained calf and a knee injury that was not made public until after the season. As a result, Pujols slumped again the final month of the season when the Angels needed him most. His .735 OPS wasn't nearly as frightening as his April performance, but it was enough to cost the Angels a post-season berth and once again raise the specter of Pujols being in steep decline with nine years remaining on his contract.
2012 in Revisionist History:
The mystery of why Pujols struggled so much to start 2012 may never be solved. Some thought the change of league messed with him. Others suggested he was distracted by the fact his family wasn't around. At one point after this bizarre incident, I suspected that Pujols was hiding an elbow injury. However the most popular theory was simply that Pujols cracked under the pressure of trying to impress his new team and new fans after signing his mega-contract. Whatever the reason, it was disturbing to see that Albert was even capable of being that bad. He was supposed to be an unstoppable hitting machine, but he somehow managed to stop himself in a big, big way.
And we should blame Pujols because it seems that his struggles are entirely self-inflicted. The most obvious example of this is in his plate discipline. 2012 gave us a bizarrely free-swinging Pujols, a trend that started in 2011 but really ramped up this last year. His walk-rate plummeted to almost half what it had been in his prime and swing rates both in and out of the zone spiked in a big way while his contract rate dropped just as sharply. This just isn't the same Albert Pujols that was the best hitter of his generation as recently as 2010.
Just like his awful April, nobody really knows why he made this big shift, one that statistical evidence suggests is not likely to be reversed, in approach. Maybe he is just bored taking all those pitches. Maybe he just thinks he can hit anything and everything. Maybe he, gulp, feels that he has to cheat and swing early because his, double gulp, bat speed is deteriorating.
When it was all said and done, Pujols' altered approach resulted in the worst season of his career, setting career worsts in just about every category that matters. Of course, his worst season is still pretty amazing as it means he is "only" a top ten player as opposed to the undisputed best player. But the Angels didn't pay him to be that, at least right now. they always knew the decline was coming, but I'm sure they were hoping it wouldn't really start in earnest until year four ate the earliest. Instead, it looks like is happening now and happening quickly.
Three Lingering Questions for 2013:
1) Can his eroding plate discipline reverse itself?
One of the big red flags with Pujols was his withering walk rate. For the season, Pujols walked a career-low 7.8% of the time, but that wasn't a constant. In June and July, which not so coincidentally were his best overall months, Albert walked in upwards of 11% of plate appearances. That is still far off from his prime when his rate was over 16%, though much of that difference can be attributed to a lack of intentional walks rather than a lack of patience. The concern is that his walk rate fell right back down into the 5% range in August and September. That's encouraging because it shows he at least still has the ability in him somewhere, but discouraging that he can't seem to maintain it.
2) Is Pujols going to be an injury concern going forward?
When Albert signed, there was the vague warning about his elbow problem but that was always a way down the road concern. Now there is a more immediate concern in his legs. First there was that calf injury that never seemed to go away and forced him into the DH role for much of the final month of the season. But then there was the off-season knee surgery. Surgery that was supposed to be minor yet is now lingering into spring training, keeping him out of the World Baseball Classic and at least raising the notion that he still might not be ready to play the field full-time come Opening Day. It wasn't supposed to last this long, just like the calf injury. Sure, he can be hidden at DH, but at some point it is going to make us wonder if his body is already starting to break down.
3) Should we be concerned about his "real" age?
Albert's age has always been a question as many believe he is really two years older than he claims. Those rumors laid dormant until he signed his contract with the Halos but they really took on a new life after this piece was published which showed how his plate discipline by age matches remarkably well to his peers but two years earlier. It is almost as if he is somehow experiencing the same effects of aging two years early. Weird, right? That clearly isn't definitive, but it has stoked the fire of the Pujols Birthers. A bounceback season would go a long way towards quieting those doubts, not to mention making everyone else feel better about all the years he still has left on his contract.
Three Irrelevant Questions for 2013:
1) Is it true that Pujols' line of cookware doesn't work for the first month after you buy it?
Because, you know.
2) If Albert Pujols really altered his birth certificate to change his age, wouldn't he also have changed his name?
Seriously, he has a horrible name and I refuse to believe he wouldn't have changed that too while he was busy lying about his identity already.
3) Will Cardinal fans travel to Anaheim just to boo Pujols when the Angels and Cards face each other this season?
If they really want to live up to the "Best Fans in Baseball" moniker, then they better start booking those flights.
2013 in Subjective Projection:
I don't want to use the term "dead cat bounce" but I can't help but shake it out of my mind while writing about Pujols and his potential rebound season. It is impossible to deny that he has been in decline the last few years, but his 2012 season was such a sharp drop that a brief improvement seems unavoidable. Part of that is because the odds of Pujols having another month like he did in April 2012 are pretty darn close to zero.
Still, there are real issue with his plate discipline that aren't just going to go away. Part of me thinks that Albert is too smart and too hard working to just never address this obvious and potentially fatal flaw. He had the ability once and it didn't completely abandon him, but he needs to focus on employing it again. Now, I'm no fool. I realize that there is a reason it began to erode. He either has lost some of that discipline or was forced to forfeit some of it to compensate for some other loss of skill. But if he can at least address his over-aggressiveness, he can possibly reverse his decline or at least slow it down.
The reason I've been harping on it so much is because the rest of his peripherals suggest that his immense talent is still there. His line drive percentage was still right on his career average as was his infield fly rate. In other words, when he is making contact, he is still making the same kind of good contact. There is the concerning large drop in his HR/FB%, but some of that is certainly attributable to the new home ballpark and the rest to him going homerless for over a month.
That will all hopefully lead to Pujols playing like an elite player again, though that is a relative term. An OPS right around .900 will put him in the MVP conversation for sure, but it is still far removed from the days when he was posting an OPS over 1.000. He just isn't that guy anymore, not that anyone would expect him to be at his age. What he is though is still very good and arguably worth his contract, for this year at least.