It's probably seemed worse, but after Thursday's brutal assault on the Metal Supply building Albert Pujols's slugging percentage in May has finally crept over .400. With opposing pitchers continuing to treat him like Albert Pujols—he has eight intentional walks, one more than he got in April—his OPS is a misleadingly solid OBP-heavy .800.
The more traditional stats do a better job of describing our Pujols-related malaise this month: He's hitting less than .280, he only has two home runs, he's got just 11 RBI. Without too much trouble you could make a list of Albert Pujols's months in the big leagues, sort it by your favorite offensive statistic, and call it a day. But a bad Albert Pujols month isn't just about the production—it's a narrative, a story. A horror story.
Submitted for the approval of the midnight society... Albert Pujols's scariest stories.
April 2007: The .250 batting average. By now it's been replaced by the Albert Pujols Who Can Do Anything, but the original Albert Pujols meme was that he could hit anything, as immortalized in this MVP Baseball 2004 ad. In 2003 he won a batting title, and a gaudy one; until by 2006 he had settled in at first base and emerged, quickly, as one of the best in baseball. But he began 2007 with a relative whimper, hitting .250 with six home runs and just four intentional walks.
It wasn't just the substance, it was the timing—low batting averages have their most chilling effect on Pujols-watchers when they come in April. A human batting average after the Cardinals' improbable run to the World Series in 2006 emphasized the team's rickety construction. It got worse from here; his batting average bounced up and down in May and reached its nadir on the 18th, at .245.
I like to imagine that that night Albert took a look at the box score in the Post-Dispatch on accident, and thought: Well. I guess I'd better fix that. Over the last 13 games of the month he hit .457.
June 2006: One home run, ten games. The double whammy of worry: Pujols gets hurt, the Cardinals go into their second-half tailspin, and when he comes back he doesn't immediately start hitting. On June 3 Albert was inducted into the Strained Oblique fraternity; he missed more than two weeks dealing with it. The team actually held on pretty well in his absence; they went 8-5 in the first thirteen games without him.
But Pujols returned during a nightmare series in Chicago, one in which the White Sox put 33 runs on the Cardinals in two days, including one of Mark Mulder's final big league starts, and when he got back he and the team went in together on their worst stretch of an ugly second half. Altogether they lost his first six games back in the lineup, and nine of the 10 games he played in June. His final line for June was .256/.356/.359, with just one extra-base hit in the eight games immediately following his return.
The Cardinals would struggle on and off until October, but Albert Pujols was ready to go in July—he hit .361 with seven home runs in his first full month back.
May 2010: Nobody hits. This month's worries have come with their own context; in April Albert had an average Pujols month—.345 with seven home runs, if you'd believe it—but engendered a little worry with his newly strikeout-prone hitting style. His 14 strikeouts, against six unintentional walks, made it seem to people who go in for this kind of swing-based psychoanalysis like he was pressing.
So in May the home runs stopped, and the batting average stopped, and with the rest of the offense crumbling around him Albert looked as human as he had in years. So it was good to see the Cardinals hit in San Diego, with the offense pulling up out of its trough, but it was better still to see it happen with Albert Pujols, hitting like Albert Pujols, at the front lines. Because when the Cardinals don't hit for a few games it's just frustrating; when Albert doesn't hit for a few games, it's frightening.