When the Cardinals fell to double-digit standings deficits in both the Wild Card and division races several weeks back, the focus of the media and fans understandably shifted from the team's fate--which seemed sealed as an also-ran--to Albert Pujols's chase of an eleventh consecutive season with a batting average of .300 or higher, 30 or more home runs, and 100 or more RBI. The first baseman's quest to preserve the unprecedented streak of traditional stat benchmarks is one that is undeniably engaging. However, even if Pujols extends his historically singular streak in these categories, 2011 will still be a season in which his offensive profile has shown a disconcerting erosion.
On May 4, 2011, Pujols was hitting .233 and 2011 seemed destined to be the season on the back of his baseball card which reflected he was not a maching, but a man. His unprecedented slow start was followed by a wrist injury that, at the time, seemed to be the final nail in the coffin of Pujols's .300/30/100 streak. Pujols then healed from the wrist fracture in a shockingly quick fashion and started hitting in a way that someone returning from a wrist fracture probably shouldn't be capable of hitting. In mid-August, the 30-homer plateau was reached. On Friday against the Phillies, a 4 for 4 performance prodded his BA to jump from .296 to .301, where it sits heading into action on Sunday. With 95 RBI and a .300 average, Cardinal Nation will be watching with bated breath to see if Pujols's eleventh season can keep traditional statistical pace with his first ten campaigns.
Pujols's batting average seems likely to be something less than .312, his previous career low of 2010. The decline over the previous three seasons from .327 to .312 to something likely lower is somewhat concerning on the surface. There is, however, some solace to be found by looking at his BABIP. In 2009, Pujols's BABIP was .299; in 2010, it was .297; and, this season, it was sitting at .276 entering play on Sunday. While this seems like a bit of bad luck, it is always important to zoom in from the BABIP forest to the batted-ball trees.
Early in the year, Pujols's LD rate had fallen off. His late season surge has restored it. In 2009, he posted a 15.6 LD%, which rose to 17.2% in 2010. Through play on Saturday, his 2011 LD rate sat at 17.4%. The most interesting nugget in Pujols's batted-ball profile is the increase in GB rate this season. Pujols has a career GB rate of 40.9% and has posted rates of 38.7% and 38.3% in each of the last two seasons. In 2011, that rate has shot up to 44.4%. (His previous career-high GB rate was in 2007 at 42.4%, a year in which he also led MLB with 27 GIDP.) Despite Pujols being big and relatively slow, this uptick in grounders off his bat at the expense of fly balls should not be driving down his BABIP--and, by extension, his BA--since players typically have a higher BABIP on grounders. Nonetheless, Pujols's BABIP is lower despite his GB% being higher. This bout of bad luck has some impact on Pujols's lower BA, lower OBP, and lower SLG, but it is not the sole cause of his dip in production.
If this were 1991 folks would know that Pujols was something less than Pujolsian, but it would be difficult to articulate why. After all, he is hitting for average, for power (at least, home runs), and driving in runs in something close to his career levels. For his career, Pujols has walked in 13.2% of his PAs and hadn't walked in fewer than 13.9% of his PAs since 2004. This season, Pujols has walked in just 10.0% of his PAs, which would be a career low. Given his career-low BA and his career-low walk rate, it is of no surprise that Pujols's .372 OBP would be the lowest of his career--far below his previous career low of .394 set in 2002.
A player's SLG and BA are linked to a certain extent. If a player hits for a lower average, it will drag down his SLG a bit. Pujols is currently slugging .546, which would set a new career low. And while his .301 BA would also be a career low mark, this is not the sole culprit for the first baseman's SLG dip. While Pujols may have a home run level on par with his career, he is hitting far fewer double. Entering play on Sunday, Pujols had hit only 25 doubles. For his career prior to 2011, Pujols had averaged about 42 doubles per season and had never clubbed fewer than 33 in a season. It's easier to hit a double on a liner or a fly ball than a grounder and this is where Pujols's increase in groundballs hit has hurt his production. This fall-off in doubles and dip in BA will likely mean Pujols posts a career low in SLG.
Given Pujols's lower OBP and SLG, it is of no surprise that his OPS has suffered as well. Unfortunately, "career low" is the refrain of this post and it is no different with OPS. Entering the game in Philadelphia Sunday night, Pujols's OPS sat at .918, which is far below his career OPS of 1.039 and well below his previous career low of .955 in 2002. Looking at OPS also offers us a method by which we can examine how Pujols's personal drop in OPS compares to the overall drop in offensive production throughout the big leagues. OPS+ demonstrates that Pujols closer to his peers than he has been during the majority of his seasons. In 2011, his OPS+ of 154 is well below his career OPS+ of 171, but would not be lower than his career worst OPS+ of 151, set in 2002. Furthermore, depending on how the season plays out, Pujols may yet raise his OPS+ to equal or surpass the 157 OPS+ posted in 2001 and 2007.
Pujols has an incredible wOBA* streak to match his .300/30/100 streak. In each of his first ten seasons, Pujols has posted a wOBA of .400 or higher; indeed, Pujols has never had a season with a wOBA lower than .402. This season, the .400-wOBA streak will assuredly come to an end. Through play on Saturday, Pujols's wOBA sat at .389. This is still an excellent wOBA. It ranks in the top 16 in MLB even if it is only third-best on the St. Louis Cardinals behind Matt Holliday (.394) and Lance Berkman (.402). Even though it is still excellent, it is something less than Pujolsian, 42 points lower than the .431 career wOBA Pujols has posted.
*A primer on wOBA can be found at Fangraphs with links to other articles on the stat.
Over the season's final games, Pujols may very well preserve his baseball card stat streak. To do so would be an incredible accomplishment, especially after the prolonged slump he endured to start the season and fractured wrist. Unfortunately, even if the streak endures there is no denying that in 2011 Pujols was a little less ridiculous and a little more human. As the Cardinals enter the bidding for his services in 2012 and beyond, this is a reality worth keeping in mind.