In 2013, The Machine broke down but he's now had an offseason to get himself fixed up and reassert himself as star player. But at 34 years old, maybe old and brittle is the new normal for the once dominant player known as Albert Pujols. Or maybe Albert is really as healthy as he's been in years and not just blowing smoke up our collective backsides in an effort to distract us from his obvious decline.
*The MWAH projections are simply my best guess based off my own personal opinion and research (my wOBA calculation is approximate because my math skills are only "meh")
What happened in 2013?
Long story short, Pujols had far and away the worst season of his career because his legs stopped working. He had plantar fasciitis in his feet and his knee never really seemed like it recovered from offseason surgery. It left Albert in such a physical state that is made you hurt just trying to watch him "run." Though he tried to deny it over and over again, the leg problems did, in fact, affect his ability to swing the bat. Pujols was visibly uncomfortable in the box and struggled to drive the ball.
After 99 games played, Pujols' foot finally and mercifully gave in by having the plantar fascia tear. That sounds bad, but it was the equivalent to Pujols having surgery. It did, however, mean that his season had to be cut short, even though Albert foolishly vowed to try and return in late-September in what was strictly a grotesque display of pride. Fortunately, Angels management and training staff were able to talk him off that ledge. That freed up Pujols to get fully healthy and prepared for the 2014 season.
What do the projections think he will do in 2014?
Well, look at that mess, would ya? Those projections are all over the place! It is almost like you can't create a statistical model to account for a generational talent coming off injury who may or may not be lying about his age. Steamer seems to think that Pujols can bounce back to his 2012 performance level only with more walks. That would be great! Oliver, however, projects Pujols to be a tick better than he was in 2013. Maybe they know something we don't know about Albert's medicals? Then ZiPS sort of splits the difference while CAIRO thinks Albert will be bad again, only with a bit more pop.
What that should tell us is that despite all of Pujols' tough talk, his resurgence in 2014 is far from a sure thing. The injuries certainly dragged him down in 2013, but they also obscure the fact that Albert was already headed downhill organically anyway. If he really is healthy, then there should at least be a dead cat bounce for Albert in 2014, but after that, all bets are off.
Does the Monkey agree or disagree?
Since there is no consensus, agreement is not on the table. But as my projections show, I am very optimistic about Pujols. I wish I could tell you that I had a lot of confidence in that projection, but that would be a lie. That isn't to say there is no evidence to suggest a big rebound though.
For starters, Pujols rectified some of the plate discipline issues that cropped up in 2012. He walked 9% of the time after walking in a career-low 7.8% in 2012. That is exciting and all, but Albert used to walk over 14% of the time before 2011, then his discipline began to erode. Similarly, Pujols' swing percentage dropped nearly three points on pitches out of the zone. His overall swing percentage was pretty much the same but at least he reversed the trend a tiny bit. Perhaps those leg issues forced him to be more selective?
The thing that really stands out for me though is that Pujols had just a .258 BABIP. Even with his leg problems, that just seems to low to be sustainable for a hitter with his skill. His line drive rate was actually the best it had been in years and his pop-up rate was below his career norm, so there is little to suggest that he lost the ability to square the ball up. The real problem just seemed to be that he couldn't drive the ball with as much authority. Having the lower half of his body back should help with that.
None of that adds up to Pujols surpassing his 2012 performance, which is where my lack of confidence comes from. The real reason I am that optimistic is because of that grotesque pride I mentioned before. I realize this is touchy-feely wishcasting, but Pujols embarrassed himself last year and I don't see him taking that lying down. He's in great shape (for now) and hopefully rededicated himself to fixing the other holes in his game that have emerged the last few seasons. That's what I'm betting, but I wouldn't bet very much on it.
What are the known unknowns?
The bottom line is that we don't know how much of Albert's problems were related to his health and how much was related to basic old age. He wants us to believe that it is 90/10, but it could easily be 50/50 or even 20/80. Not to belabor the point too much, but Pujols stopped being great in 2011. Now, that is supposedly when his knee and feet started to act up, but it is also when he got on the wrong side of 30 years old.
We also don't know if Pujols is as healthy as he insists. The foot should be better, but it was ultimately the knee that started all of this and never healed as expected last year. Inactivity should have helped that heal up, but there is no guarantee that playing a heavy workload in the field won't cause it to flair up again. There's also the elbow problem he has but seldom mentions. With a guy heading into his age 34 season, it seem foolish to assume that he is going to be perfectly healthy for more than a few seconds, if at all.