by Brian Walton
Being an advocate of the spread the risk strategy, I had never paid $30 for a player in seven previous years of National League Tout Wars drafts, let alone $42.
Yet that is precisely what I did in 2011. Though it would be a convenient excuse, I cannot blame my actions on the events of draft morning. I was the victim in an auto accident which occurred on Manhattan's West Side Highway as I was on my way to MLB.com headquarters. I arrived shaken and stirred with about five minutes to spare. With no room at the crowded draft table, I had no choice but to share a small cafe table with another drafter.
No, the reality is that with my eyes wide open and with all my wits about me, I made the top bid on St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols. To say this was unusual would be an understatement. Despite my writing about the Cardinals organization for a living, the 31-year-old is a player that I had never owned in an auction draft in any of his 10 previous and most consistent major league seasons.
An average Pujols streak will do
To top it off, I had even written extensively prior to the season about my concerns that Pujols may be heading toward a subpar season in 2011. The primary reason postulated was his contract stalemate with St. Louis coupled with the reality that he had never experienced the uncertainty inherent in free agency.
While Pujols spent 15 days on the disabled list due to a forearm injury that was blown far out of proportion as to its severity, all indications are that he is healthy overall. There seems no evidence his past elbow problems are bothering him. In fact, especially in a year with so few decent third base options, many of his owners were probably hoping he would qualify at the hot corner with a few more games played there.
So, why is Pujols hovering about the .280 mark, almost 50 points below his career average?
There are few key situations in which he is excelling.
In a tie game? .222 average. A one-run game? .257. With a runner on third and two out? .200. With the sacks jammed? .250.
It appears he is overanxious, expanding his strike zone. While Albert has cranked up his home run output since coming off the DL, he has drawn just four non-intentional walks since July 9, over a month.
On the season, Pujols has just 39 walks after averaging over 100 per year over the last six years. Even if you are not in an on-base percentage league, think about the huge change.
Pujols is no longer scaring the opposition into giving him free passes. After leading the league in intentional walks the last three seasons, averaging 39, he has just six this year. Sure, Matt Holliday is hitting behind him, but he was in the second half of 2009 and all of last season, as well.
With just 21 doubles to date, Pujols is on pace to finish with a new personal season low in two-base hits.
As a team, the Cardinals are on track to establish a new National League single-season record for grounding into double plays. In terms of individual players, Pujols is tops in the NL with 25. (His teammate, slow-footed catcher Yadier Molina, is second in the league with 17 rally-killers.)
The rollercoaster that is Pujols 2011 was no more evident than during the just-completed three-game showdown with NL Central leader Milwaukee.
In Tuesday's game one defeat, Pujols went 0-for-5. He made the final out of the inning four times and stranded six baserunners.
After another quiet and disappointing loss in game two, Pujols was just 1-for-25 (.040) in his last six games versus the Brewers. For the season, he was 5-for-42 (.119) against Milwaukee pitching.
Just when it seemed darkest, as the Cardinals would fall six games out, Pujols showed up with a monster game on Thursday. His 4-for-4 performance in the game three win included a home run, two RBI and two runs scored.
Even in the "down" year, all is not lost. That Thursday homer was Pujols' National League-leading 28th long ball, tying him with teammate Lance Berkman. Pujols is also tied for seventh in the NL in RBI.
As I look back at past Tout seasons, I tend to assign to each a label that helps me remember the key difference-maker that year. There have been the Jeremy Hermida seasons (twice!) as well as the Rich Hill and Tom Gorzelanny years.
Boom or bust, 2011 will surely be the year of Albert Pujols for my NL Tout squad.
I can't recall how many times already this season I have seen or heard someone suggest that "Pujols is on the verge of breaking out." It hasn't happened - yet. Now, I am not going to be greedy, expecting a superstar performance over the last six weeks. Even a 10-year average Pujols run would be just fine and dandy.
It remains to be seen whether or not "The Machine" can power his Cardinals into the playoffs and my fantasy team to victory, but either way, it should remain an interesting ride.
Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league's 13-year history. He is a 2009 NFBC league winner and finished in the top 25 nationally in both the NFBC and NFFC that season. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.