Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Harsh Reality Facing Pujols and Angels

Albert Pujols can't seem to buy a home run this year; nor many hits of any kind for that matter.  Indeed, his unusually slow start to the 2012 season - featuring zero home runs in 21 games spanning 84 ABs - has reached epic proportions.  Not only is it the longest home run drought to begin a season in his entire career; including the end of last season, Pujols has now gone 27 regular season games without a home run; that's a brand-new record for the longest drought of his career, edging out a 26-game dry-spell he endured just last season.  Could this be some sort of trend?

Needless to say, every new personal milestone involving the 32-year-old King is creating quite a stir with Halo-Nation's fervent fans; many of whom still marvel at owner Arte Moreno's generosity, which will keep the handsomely-paid Albert taking his hacks at the dish - dressed up like an Angel - for a full decade.

Maybe it's just a coincidence that these significant power outages have occurred so recently for the 32-year old former Cardinal icon, who has been stuck on 445 career home runs since late last September - when the unlikely championship run of the unlikely wild card Cardinals was in full swing.  By that time, the team had managed to put aside the pending soap opera that had been brewing all season long, when the ill-fated contract negotiations between the Cardinals' front office and its pending free agent superstar stalled, well before the 2011 regular season even began.

When Pujols got off to the worst start of his career (at the time), it seemed reasonable to conclude that King Albert was so distracted by all the fuss he was unable to concentrate on his game; at least during the early part of the campaign.  By late August, his early-season frustrations had long since faded; by season's end, Pujols was once again among the league leaders in most offensive categories, and his hot hitting continued throughout the historic postseason the Cardinals would enjoy.

With his World Championship mission accomplished, and new chapter in his life about to unfold, a relaxed and confident Pujols seemed to effortlessly breeze through his first Spring Training as a member of the LA Angels of Anaheim; it seemed a foregone conclusion he was going to have a monster year for his new team.  Personally, I thought he was the odds-on favorite to win his first AL MVP Award, and I thought the Halos would finally sneak past the Texas Rangers in the AL West.  Yes, I bought into the Pujols mystique, but after eleven years of greatness, it seemed reasonable for that to continue for another year.  Hmm.

Reality check, please:  After just the first 21 games of the season, both scenarios seem unlikely, as the Angels - off to their worst start in franchise history - have won but six of those games and now trail the Rangers by 9 or 10 games (I've lost track) - off to their best start in franchise history.  What a coincidence.

It's interesting to note, among all players with 400 or more home runs with one team who changed teams, only a 36-year old Willie McCovey (87 ABs) in 1974 (Padres) went longer (just 3 ABs) than where Albert currently stands before finally hitting a home run.  McCovey finished that season with 22 home runs; Pujols has never hit less than 32 in a season; believe it or not.

Even the aging-beyond-belief Willie Mays only waited 50 ABs in 1972 before connecting for his new team - the New York Mets, but at age 41, the Say Hey Kid  was simply a public relations relic; reuniting with his old fan base from days of yore.

Of course, the season is still quite young, but the numbers Pujols has posted so far have gone from bad to worse (.226 BA/.278 OBP/.310 SLG), featuring a previously unheard-of 0 for 20 streak; perhaps  21 was his lucky number - a seeing-eye single to center broke the spell - but he was quickly erased, inexplicably trying to stretch that knock into a double - already the fourth time Pujols had run his team out of an inning so far this year.  Naturally, the next hitter, Torii Hunter got a base hit, but the pending rally fizzled, while an obviously frustrated Pujols stewed.

Baseball analysts have offered a myriad of explanations for this previously unheard-of lack of production:

*"Marine air effect" - The heavy, moist air at Angels' Stadium - especially during night games - turns home runs into routine fly balls to the warning track.  Teammate Torii Hunter reportedly warned Albert about this adverse condition prior to Pujols launching a couple of "bombs" which he thought would be long gone; but not quite.  This clearly frustrated the Machine, and it may have attributed to his recent 0 for 20 nightmare - the longest hit-less streak of his career.

*"The Shift" - Knowing that Pujols has been pulling just about everything - on the ground - opposing teams have been stacking the left side of the infield with extra defenders, turning base hits into easy outs.

*"Too much pressure" - The theory goes that Pujols is simply trying too hard to justify the huge contract, so he's not relaxed and swinging free and easy at the plate.

*"No protection in the lineup" - Albert's not getting any fat pitches to hit since opposing pitchers don't mind pitching around him to get to someone like Torii Hunter, who is also struggling at the plate.  The big problem is, Pujols is chasing a lot of pitches outside the strike zone, so he's getting himself out by being over-anxious.

*"Unfamiliarity with AL pitchers" - Since he hasn't faced many of the AL teams on a regular basis, he doesn't know what to expect the pitchers to throw him.  Funny, but Pujols actually had a higher career batting average against AL pitching than NL pitching, before even shifting venues.  Of course, as the 2001 NL Rookie of the Year, challenged by the same set of circumstances, young Albert somehow managed to feast on NL pitching all season long (.329 BA - 37 HR - 130 RBI).  Go figure.

*"The hitting coach is not 'coaching' very well" - Sure; throw '88 World Series hero Mickey Hatcher under the bus because he hasn't corrected the problem with Pujols.  Somehow, I don't think the King relies on helpful tips from the Angels' lower echelon management team to improve his swing; although it probably wouldn't hurt!

Another theory that no Angels fan wants to believe is true, is a bit harsher, but perhaps more realistic:

Quite simply, the greatest player of our time is past his prime; maybe even well past his prime.

It's so hard to fathom; especially, how well he performed down the stretch for the Cardinals, as they stormed into the postseason; and the three-home run Game Three performance Albert delivered in last year's World Series is still etched deeply into our national consciousness; like it happened only yesterday.  Surely, he's got much more left in the tank; more Pujols-like offensive numbers that we've grown so accustomed to seeing, year in and year out.

Quite possibly, this remarkable athlete, known to so many of his admirers as "The Machine", is really human after all.  He's on the down-side of age thirty, when most ballplayers show noticeable signs of declining performance.  More than likely, Albert Pujols is no longer the player he was just a few short years ago, because age catches up with everybody; even some of the players who seemed like they would go on forever.

Let's take a look at the production Albert Pujols provided for the Cardinals, the last time they won the World Series, prior to 2011 - way back in 2006.  His career stats are directly below 2006.  2011 - His worst year ever, is the third set of numbers.

49 HR - 137 RBI - .331 BA/.431 OBP/.671 SLG (2006)
42 HR - 125 RBI - .327 BA/.419 OBP/.614 SLG (CAREER)
37 HR -   99 RBI - .299 BA/.366 OBP/.541 SLG (2011)

After 2006, the steady decline in Pujols' offensive production also happened to coincide with a steady increase in the number of times he grounded into double plays (GIDP).  In 2007, Albert led the NL; doing it a then-career high 27 times.  Proving that was no fluke, Pujols established yet another career high in 2011 - his final season with the Cardinals - going out on top with another NL-Leading GIDP total:  29 (Barely missing his goal of 30, but maybe he can do it this year).

While most players reach their peaks in their late-20s - early-30s (Hall of Fame examples include George Brett (32), Joe Morgan (33), Eddie Mathews (32), Johnny Bench (30), Duke Snider (30), Ernie Banks (29), Wade Boggs (31), and Carl Yastrzemski (31), some manage to remain highly productive even into their mid-to-late 30s - Paul Molitor is a classic example of a highly productive "war horse".

Others, like Don Mattingly and Dale Murphy were superstar-caliber performers for just a handful of seasons, then almost fell off into oblivion by the time they reached 30.  Mattingly was out of baseball by the age of 34; sadly, Murphy hung on well into his late 30s, but should have taken Donny Baseball's cue and hung 'em up by age 34, at the latest.

Beginning in his age 32 season, Murphy experienced career lows* in most offensive categories, which strangely enough, came on the heels of career highs+ (since 1982) in most offensive categories, just one year prior; I really found it hard to believe, but here's what happened:

AGE     G     R     HR     RBI      BA      OBP       SLG
31       159*  115    44+    105     .295     .417+     .580+
32       156*   77*   24*     77*    .226*    .313*     .421*

That's a stunning drop-off in production from one season to the next; going from what was essentially, a career year in his age-31 season, to a career dud in his age-32 season.  Ironically, Pujols is now into his age-32 season, but unlike Murphy, had an off year in his age-31 season, hitting under .300 with less than 100 RBI for the first time in his storied career.  Strangely enough, Pujols is currently hitting .226 in the early stages of this season; matching the low average of Murphy at the same age.  However, the chances of Pujols going an entire season at this current pace is unfathomable.  Perhaps in Year Ten of the Contract, .226 is doable; we'll see.

As far as Mattingly is concerned; his career skyrocketed like few have ever done - between ages 23 through 25 - then began noticeably tapering off between ages 26 through 28.  By the time he was 29 until he retired after his age 34 season, Mattingly was only slightly better than an average ballplayer.

Both players were extremely durable during their brief career peaks, playing just about every game of every season before hitting that mysterious "wall".  It's difficult to understand how their skills declined so rapidly; sometimes, the bodies just can't respond to the physical demands the game of baseball requires.

Arguably, even a substantially less productive Albert Pujols may still be better than 90% of the rest of MLB's players.  However, in light of his steady decline in recent years, it appears 2012 will be no better than 2011.  In fact, it will probably be a bit worse in most measurable categories.  When Arte Moreno signed this aging icon to that 10-year - nearly quarter of a billion dollar contract - I wonder what his expectations were for King Albert?  Was he star-struck by the dazzling World Series display in Game Three, when Pujols tied the Bambino and Mr October by going deep three times in such dramatic fashion?

The answer is, probably so.  I suppose it's hard to blame the man who desperately wants to bring another World Series championship to his Orange County patrons.  Certainly, most of the loyal subjects originally bought into the Pujols hype; which, unfortunately for the Halos, is becoming a thing of the past.

If you want to believe in miracles; go for it.  Maybe the King can deliver one more really good season.  I wouldn't expect much more than a handful of "pretty good" to "halfway decent" seasons, however.

I hate to see what ten years down the road holds in store for this once great, former-St Louis Cardinal icon.  Sadly, the end of this Hall of Fame career may well turn into a nightmare for the King and all his Southern California minions; much sooner than anyone expects.

Time will tell, but reality seems to be  growing harsher with each passing day, as a bewildered Albert Pujols tries to cope with rapidly diminishing skills in just the first year of what seems likely to be the biggest free agent disaster in MLB history.

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