What Albert Pujols is doing is amazing. You know this. You’ve been watching, hanging on every plate appearance, just as I have. You don’t really need my words to tell you how incredible Pujols is.
(If you feel that you do, I wrote with more verbosity in my previous Pujols post. Go read that if you want the feels, or just enjoy laughing at my expense for being an idiot back in March. I gladly admit I was wrong. I still have leftover crow in the freezer. Plan to heat some up for lunch today. It’s delicious.)
So, today, I’m not here to give you more words. I’m here to give you analysis. And video. LOTS of video. Because something has become clear to me after watching Pujols do what he’s doing.
What first clued me in was Albert (Pujols) coming back to the dugout and sharing a sly chuckle with (Jeff) Albert, the Cardinals hitting coach, after nearly every home run. They would laugh and smile and do some hand gestures, saying something to each other that the broadcast couldn’t pick up. They acted like two people who shared some kind of inside joke in which the opposing pitchers were the butt.
It’s not at all unusual for a player to celebrate a home run with his hitting coach. That’s the most normal thing ever. But it got me wondering… what if they DO have an inside joke? What if Pujols and the Cardinals’ hitting staff have put together a special attack plan that would maximize Albert’s ability to loft balls over fences? What if he’s implementing it perfectly, much to the joy of everyone in on it?
Well, of course, they have! That’s exactly what’s happening.
Pujols’ job is literally to face left-handed pitchers and do as much damage as he possibly can against them. The Cardinals’ offensive goals fit perfectly alongside Pujols’ own pursuit of history. Maximizing Pujols’ ability to hit homers off lefties also maximizes the Cardinals’ ability to win as many games as possible.
None of what Pujols is doing is luck. It’s not an accident. It’s definitely not steroids. (Come on, national non-baseball commenters, don’t be so dumb as to believe that Pujols is taking a new-fangled performance enhancer that only works in the second half of a season against left-handed pitchers. There’s no “cream” or “clear” that can do that, and yes, I’m talking to you Max Kellerman.)
Albert has a very intentional plan at the plate. It’s a plan he is executing to maximize his chances of hitting a home run during every at-bat. And it’s working.
So, what is that plan? What is Pujols hunting? Let’s have a look and see!
My approach to this was simple. I looked at all the home runs that Pujols has hit during this hot stretch – basically from July 1 forward. I wanted to see what kind of pitch he faced, its velocity, and its location. That wouldn’t give me all the facts about Pujols’ strategy. Someone else can look at changes in his launch angle, batted ball types, chase/swing% by zone, etc. But if there were trends in the pitching data by home run, that would at least tell us what kinds of pitches Pujols is hunting for and where he’s finding his success.
Pujols has hit 14 homers since the first of July. We’ll go in reverse order – the most recent first. Here’s the Baseball Savant Search that I used to construct this data.
Here also is the zone chart that Baseball Savant (and many other sites) use to identify and number pitch locations. These charts are set from the catcher view. So the left side of the chart is inside to a righty like Pujols and the right side is outside.
Pitch Type: 4-seam fastball at 93.4 mph
Pitch Location: Zone 3
Here’s our first sample. Homer number 18 on the season, number 697, taking Pujols past Alex Rodriguez on the all-time list. The catcher set up for a fastball low and away. The pitcher missed location, and the ball stayed high and in the upper corner of the zone. The result is Dan McLaughlin screaming in excitement.
Notice what this pitch is. High fastball on the edge of the zone. Average or below velocity. Pujols was just a hair behind it but he still lofts it to the right side of center field.
Homer # 17
Pitch Type: Slider at 85.5 mph
Pitch Location: Zone 2
The second sample is a little different. Except it’s not. It’s a slider that hangs badly high in the zone in the middle of the plate. Pujols does Pujols things to it.
Two pitches are not a sample size. But maybe you’re already seeing something. You know what you can do with high pitches? Loft them!
Pitch Type: 4-seam fastball at 94.2 mph
Pitch Location: Zone 1
Another high fastball. Baseball Savant lists this as Zone 1, but it is maybe an inch or two inside. I would have put it in Zone 2 based on the location and the dot on the video. Here you have another pitch that was supposed to be low based on the way the catcher set up, but it stayed high and over the heart of the plate. Pujols killed this one. You can probably already see the trend.
Pitch Type: 4-seam fastball at 92.8 mph
Pitch Location: Zone 12
Here’s our first Zone 12. It’s another fastball but this one stays just off the plate outside and on the high side of center. Pujols reaches for this one and managed to push it the other way, barely getting it over the wall in homer-friendly Cincy.
Fastball? Check. High? Check. Center to outside of the plate? Check. Does it even have to be in the zone? Nope.
Pitch Type: Sinker at 93.3 mph
Pitch Location: Zone 12
A sinker that doesn’t sink. That’s a pitch all hitters are looking for when they are in the zone. This one is way out of the zone, high and outside. Mere mortals pop this up. Or watch it without moving the bat. But Pujols is a high fastball hunter. And that wascally wabbit ended up in the seats.
Pitch Type: 4-seam fastball at 91.3 mph
Pitch Location: Zone 3
Zone 3 again. Slow fastball on the black and high. Pujols can’t get around on it but he has more than enough power to loft it into center and catch the stands. The trend should be obvious by now.
Pitch Type: 4-seam fastball at 90.9
Pitch Location: Zone 8
This one is a little different. Bumgarner hits his spot, dropping a fastball low in the zone, likely hoping to get a ground ball. Pujols adjusted well, getting his bat head down and using his strong hands to add loft and drive. I think if this pitch was 94+, Pujols grounds out. It wasn’t. Give Pujols a few extra milliseconds and he can adjust so wonderfully.
Pitch Type: 4-seam fastball at 92.3
Pitch Location: Zone 7
Zone 7 now. Low and in. This is not really the kind of pitch that Pujols is looking for and I think it shows in the result. Pujols barely managed to loft it at 22 degrees and sneak it over the wall for a short slam in Busch. This is the only homer from this pitch location in the sample.
Pitch Type: Sinker at 94.1
Pitch Location: Zone 5
This is another zone 5 but it’s a hair on the higher side of middle/middle. Rogers’ sinker didn’t sink and Pujols made the Brewers pay. I mean… yeah, Pujols is hunting for high fastballs, but if you leave one center/center, he’ll kill it. 108.9 mph on the exit velocity here for 443 feet. Ouch.
Pitch Type: Slider at 83.3
Pitch Location: Zone 5
A slider center/center. I think this pitch has to look so good to Pujols. If he’s sitting on high, loftable fastballs and then gets a slower slider that breaks from high/outside to center/center, that pitch has to look like a freaking beach ball. He has plenty of time to follow the ball path down and such strong hands. This ball finds Big Mac Land. We’ll see this again.
Pitch Type: Slider at 83.9
Pitch Location: Zone 5
Another middle/middle slider. Mommas don’t let your lefties grow up to throw slow, dead-center sliders to Albert Pujols. You can watch Pujols adjust down with his hands and loft it easily. Poor Austin Gomber, who is on this list twice.
Pitch Type: 4-seam fastball at 93.5
Pitch Location: Zone 8
Like the Bumgarner homer earlier, this is a true low fastball. It doesn’t fit the trend, but Pujols didn’t become a legend by being one-dimensional. How does he get his hands down and loft this for a homer to deep center? The world may never know. It’s so impressive.
Pitch Type: Sinker at 93.8
Pitch Location: Zone 13
This is the real oddball of the sample. This fastball was low and in and somehow Pujols still gets the barrel down to it and lofts it. While Pujols might be looking for pitch/location types, what’s most impressive about his swing right now is his uncanny ability to generate loft on any pitch in any location.
Pitch Type: Sinker at 92.6
Pitch Location: Zone 6
With the last one, we are back to more familiar territory. Here’s a sinker that does move but stays middle and outside. Pujols probably wants it a little higher but it’s still comfortably in his wheelhouse.
This isn’t a perfectly clean sample size. We’re just looking for trends here to identify a hitting strategy. Pujols is a mature and brilliant hitter, with an excellent ability to recognize pitches and make adjustments. He also has uniquely strong hands and the ability to generate line-drive level loft. We’ve seen this from him for over 20 years.
How’s he translating that to his current history chase? What’s he hunting for? Right now, Pujols’ primary targets are average to below fastballs that are center to high and center to outside relative to the plate. The zone itself doesn’t seem to matter; if those fastballs drift for balls high or away, he still has the crazy bat-to-ball ability and the hands to drive the ball with line-drive loft.
Note that I did not look at Pujols’ outs, but high and outside fastballs should lead to more pop-ups or shallow fly balls from any batter. I would guess that with more velocity (95+) or movement – i.e. better pitches – pitchers are probably getting those results from him. However, average or below velocity particularly from lefties gives Pujols enough time to center balls and let his incredible hands do the work for him.
Sliders, meanwhile, are baseball’s go-to out getters but that doesn’t seem to matter to Pujols either. A slider, to him, is just a slow fastball that, if left high, will start in his target zone and break down toward his ideal swing plane. Again, more spin and better location – particularly ones that break low into the zone – would probably get him right now. But if you leave them up spinning, or drop them into the center of the plate, he just lets his hands do the work and those balls leave the park fast.
That doesn’t mean Pujols can’t hit other locations, too. In this sample, Pujols saw a few center-low fastballs and was still able to stay on them and hit them out. That’s a bit of a rarity, though. Bumgarner’s didn’t have nearly enough velocity to get past him. The homer in Toronto was a good piece of hitting from an absolute legend. But the pitch was just slow enough for Pujols to get his bat right. I’m sure Pujols is still seeing plenty of low fastballs at 94+ and I would guess he’s either avoiding them or making outs on them.
Pujols is hunting. High and outside fastballs are his game and he’s getting plenty of them. Particularly from lefties with below-average velocity and stuff. That’s exactly what he was brought here to do. Marmol is consistently getting Pujols in a position to face those arms and the coaching staff has him locked into what they are throwing. This is a personal record but everyone on the Cardinals is getting to share in the feast.