This weekend, reigning National League Most Valuable Player Joey Votto rolled into town sporting a line only surpassed in its gaudiness by our own Matt Holliday. The contrast was nonetheless striking as the man who dethroned The Great Pujols as MVP was off to an otherworldly start to his re-election campaign. The St. Louis pitching staff handled Votto in the way we have grown accustomed to seeing the opposition handle Pujols while the Cincinnati pitchers handled Pujols in an unfamiliar way--they challenged him and often induced him to chase at a borderline or outright bad offering, retiring himself. It was a jarring experience likely made worse by its wearing on a fanbase's nerves already frayed by an offseason of top secret yet fruitless contract negotiations with the only player in history to have posted ten consecutive seasons of a .300 average, 30 homers, and 100 ribbies. The thrilling clash between Central contenders ended with the All-Star first basemen putting up the following lines:
Pujols: .273/.250/.545 -- 1 HR, 3 RBI, 3 H, 3 SO, 0 BB
Votto: .222/.500/.667 -- 1 HR, 2 RBI, 2 H, 1 SO, 5 BB
*Stats via the Day by Day Database at Baseball Musings.
In the glare of the ESPN national spotlight, Sunday's contest undoubtedly left a lasting impression on Cardinal fans. An impression that was probably compounded by the off-day today which allowed the impression to fester. Pujols helped Edinson Volquez out, it seemed, and looked rather bad in so doing. In fact, he looked downright un-Pujolsian. During today's discussion thread, mattyp started the discussion and several of us gave voice to what I suspect is a widely held perception amongst the Cardinals fanbase regarding Albert Pujols: Pujols is swinging at everything and getting himself out. I think this perception was driven home primarily by Pujols's attrocious swing on an up-and-in offering from Volquez that actually broke our star slugger's bat...with a changeup. (The 8.2% walk rate is not helping matters either.) ESPN showing the swing in super slo-mo did nothing but further ingrain the plate appearance and swing in our minds. To be sure, that swing was indefensibly bad, but it was the only pitch Pujols chased out of the zone Sunday night, a fact evidenced by the Pitch F/X chart from Pujols's flailings against the Reds' righty:
That pitch was also one of two--maybe, three--out-of-the-zone pitches Pujols swung at throughout the series.
I believe that poor contact, such as that against the up-and-in Volquez change is leaving a misperception seared into our consciousnesses by the unique visual image of Albert Pujols taking an awkward swing at a ball out of the zone and producing weak contact. Believe it or not, Pujols is actually swinging less often in 2011 than he has in other season but one. To date, Pujols has swung at 40.9% of the balls pitched to him. His career average is 42.2% and his career low is 38.6%, in 2007.
Pujols is swinging less often overall, but it sure seems like he is swinging at a lot more balls out of the strikezone. That is not entirely true, either. This season, Pujols has swung at 21.5% of the pitches he has seen outside of the zone. His career O-Swing% is 20.3%. But, last season his O-Swing% was 27.5%; in 2009, it was 22.9%; and, in 2008, it was 21.6%. Comparing the share of pitches outside the zone he swings at to the mid-Aughts, his O-Swing% is high, but it is low or about equal as compared to the past three seasons.*
*In two of those seasons, he won the MVP.
The problem, then, is the contact. It has been poor. The rate of contact he has had in 2011 when swinging at pitches outside the strikezone, O-Contact%, is 84.2%. Pujols's career O-Contact% is 67.3%. His career-high O-Contact%, reached in 2010, is 76%. Pujols is simply making contact more often when he chases a pitch outside the zone. This is likely resulting in a lower quality of contact than we are used to seeing from No. 5 and this is likely leaving a lasting impression on us.
Pujols has the highest GB rate of his career so far this season. Hence, the GIDP binge. At 47.5%, his GB% is nearly seven percentage points higher than his career 40.6% GB rate and nearly five percentage points higher than his previous single-season GB rate of 42.9% in his rookie season. Pujols's LD rate is as paltry as his GB rate is robust. It currently sits at 13.8%, well below his career 19.2% LD rate and his previous single-season low of 15.6%, set in 2009.
What ought Pujols's line look like, then? Statcorner has a stat titled wOBAr. The site explains it thusly:
This is wOBA, but with the hitter's success on batted balls regressed toward his prior averages. League averages are used when the sample size is too small. In effect, it's PrOPS, but with a player's past history used as the baseline when possible instead of the league.
Statcorner has Pujols's wOBA for 2011 at .354 so far. His park-adjusted wOBA (wOBA* on Statcorner) is .376. Pujols's wOBAr is .448. So, adjusting for Pujols's historical batted-ball rates, he would have a wOBA on par with his real-life 2008 and 2009 MVP efforts.
It has been a frustrating start to the season for the mang seeking the largest contract in the history of the game. As a fan, it has been somewhat worrying, as well; in part, because of his forthcoming offseason contract demands. Pujols has already started to right the batting ship, hitting .333/.377/.729/1.107 over the last fourteen days with 6 homers. Okay, so the good ship Pujols is righted and there really is not any reason to think it will not stay that way as his batted ball profile evens out into something more closely resembling that of the last few seasons.