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Odds say Albert Pujols will eventually hit a home run, but the more valid question now looming is how many, considering he failed to do so in his first 92 at-bats of 2012. In his age-32 season (maybe older, per conspiracy theorists), he has showed April weakness for the second straight season. This one proved to be an even bigger strikeout than the last.
His relationship with hitting coach Mickey Hatcher is already straining in their first year together. Those pesky statistics don't show much optimism, except for maybe how handily the BABIP gods are smiting him. Per Fangraphs.com, his bump in line drives - at 24.4 percentage so far, nearly a 7 percent increase from his 2011 rate - doesn't jive with his .256 in-play clip. His drop in fly-ball rate unfortunately comes with a return to his previously high pop-up proportion.
The Machine has shown rust with only six walks in 98 plate appearances, a far cry from his typically robotic eliteness. Breaking balls have produced a short circuit - not surprising, considering the Junior Circuit has traditionally been tougher with off-speed stuff.
The astounding frequency in which he's helping out hurlers shows he's trying to justify his contract against his new enemies. His PITCHf/x data on Fangraphs only comprises stats from 2007 on, but it does a significant job in conveying what ails him.
Registering by far his highest figure in the stats service's recordable window, Pujols has swung at 47.0 percent of the pitches he has seen this year. Same for the 34.8 percent of pitches he's hacking at outside of the strike zone. A mere 24.4 percent of offerings have been four-seamers, by far the lowest of any qualifying campaign.
Mike DiGiovanna, Halos beat writer for the Los Angeles Times, wrote this past weekend that Pujols is setting himself up for this sequence of failure:
Not only has Pujols not homered in 84 at-bats this season, he hasn't driven in a run in 12 games and is batting .226 with four RBIs. He's been so passive at the plate, taking fastball after fastball for first-pitch strikes, that he seems to have an 0-and-1 count when he's standing in the on-deck circle.
In an effort to get a feel for new pitchers in a new league, the former St. Louis Cardinals star has been taking pitches early in at-bats, but opponents are going right at him, getting ahead with 0-2 and 1-2 counts and putting Pujols on the defensive.
The result: Pujols, in more of a protect than attack mode, has swung at too many pitches out of the strike zone, producing weak contact and more strikeouts. Pujols did single during a scoring rally in the first inning Saturday, but in his third at-bat, he struck out on three pitches, the third a Jeanmar Gomez fastball he watched go right down the middle.
He has fallen behind 0-1 a flat 50 percent of the time, and this year, it's biting him back much harder.
Not all recorded line drives are screamers, and firsthand accounts by DiGiovanna of Pujols' contact quality say the numbers aren't telling the whole story. There's probably a hint of aging in Pujols' bat speed that's limiting the struck strings that loft into the outfield. This fear wasn't expected to be realized so soon.
On the other hand, since Pujols is squaring up on the ball and nearing 90 percent on his contact rate, he might merely need a few breaks and tweaks before rediscovering the Albert of old. It's looking like a taller order to reverse, though, without his mentality in the batter's box reverting to its vintage ways. Doesn't sound hard, but of course, you'd have to think he'd be comfortable by now if that were the only problem.
Did any set of preseason projections forecast Pujols for fewer than 30 taters? If you find one, you'll probably discover Jimmy Hoffa buried alongside it. Pujols' natural power says he can still reach that level, but not without regaining the assertiveness he showed in the Senior Circuit.
Clubbing 30 homers would construct a 75 percent return on what this site projected him for; that yield is basically what you should hope for.
Despite the improved batted-ball fortune he might still encounter, a .300 batting average seems lofty, as well, considering the steps back he has taken in plate discipline. The Halos' lineup should regain some thump to help bolster his RBIs and runs scored over time, but those are only secondary to the innate skills he must recover to eliminate the holes in his swing and methods.
Trading Pujols is a tricky proposition. Don't blindly go selling him for anything below face value, of course. But if someone is proposing a package that pegs him at his preseason price and meets several needs you might have, you have more reason to consider it this season than you did in the past, considering how much he's dragging down your statistical pace and the mounting less-than-promising signs.
Maybe 2012 is a get-over-the-hump year for him. Maybe he unleashes again once he gets his timing and focus just right. You can justifiably follow either train of thought here, but you can't write off the negatives as categorically as you could in previous seasons.
About Tim Heaney
Tim's work has been featured by USA Today/Sports Weekly, among numerous outlets, and recognized as a finalist in the Fantasy Sports Writers Association awards. The Boston University alum, who competes in the prestigious LABR and Tout Wars, has won numerous industry leagues in both baseball and football.
He appears frequently, including every Sunday, on Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio, as well as every Wednesday on 1570 AM WNST in Baltimore.
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