It was a beautiful thing.
Sunday afternoon, Giancarlo Stanton hit a home run.
It would have been meaningless -- it came in the bottom of the ninth inning, and turned an 8-1 game into an 8-4 game -- except it was Stanton's first home run of the season.
Before, Stanton was in a large group of homer-less players that included Gordon Beckham, Juan Pierre, and teammate Emilio Bonifacio. After, Stanton was in a large group of one-homer players that includes James Loney, Ryan Zimmerman, and Chone Figgins.
April's almost over, and it's good to be reminded that it takes a lot longer than one month for things to even out.
To wit, Stanton hasn't been the only (supposed) power hitter suffering an April power outage. Alfonso Soriano hit 26 home runs last season, and hasn't homered in April. Andrew McCutchen hit 23 home runs last season, and hasn't homered in April. Mark Reynolds hit 37 home runs last season, and hasn't homered in April.
But with Stanton on the board, the most surprising homer-free slugger this season is obvious: Albert Pujols.
Like Reynolds, Pujols hit 37 home runs last season. Unlike Reynolds, Pujols is actually a great hitter.
Probably. He certainly used to be a great hitter.
Yes, last season it looked like he might finally be a human being rather than a power-hitting automaton. But that's only if you look at the whole season. Pujols got off to a terribly slow start last year; after going 0 for 4 on the 1st of June, his season batting line looked like this:
Hardly the stuff of legend.
From June 2 through the end of the regular season, Albert Pujols did this:
Then, two more batting lines, just to prove that wasn't a fluke:
The first of those came in 18 postseason games, on his way to a World's Championship with the Cardinals. The second came in 23 spring-training games, after signing a 10-year, $240-million contract with the Angels.
The first two months of 2011 were a disaster, by Pujols's standards. The next six months -- four months in the regular season, then October, then spring training this year -- suggested that the Albert Pujols we've grown to know and love hadn't gone away at all, but instead just took a little vacation. American League pitchers were in for a rough time, once the 2012 regular season got going.
Here is Pujols's 2012 regular-season line ...
... with exactly zero home runs. Just like Gordon Beckham and Juan Pierre. Oh, and Pujols has driven home four runners all season.
The Angels are 7-15 overall, 1-6 in one-run games, and nine games behind the first-place Rangers. If you're looking for a good scapegoat ... well, you can start at first base and stop there, if you like.
But leaving aside all those terrible numbers, is there anything obviously wrong with Albert Pujols?
In his career, Pujols has been almost exactly neutral in terms of ground balls and fly balls (including pop-ups), with 40 percent each; this season he's at 38 percent each.
He's hit slightly more infield pops than usual, 15 percent rather than 10 percent ... but, oddly enough, that's been balanced by a corresponding increase in live-drive percentage, from 19 percent in his career to 25 percent this season.
Anyway, whatever differences show up in Pujols's batted-ball percentages would seem practically meaningless when we're talking about only 22 games. The batted balls -- the fundamental indicators of a hitter's abilities -- don't seem to suggest there's anything wrong with Albert Pujols.
What about this, though, from FoxSports' Jon Paul Morosi:
Scioscia noted over the weekend that Pujols has at times seemed “passive” in his approach. The numbers bear that out. Last year, Pujols put the first pitch in play roughly 9.7 percent of the time. This season, the figure has dropped to 5.7 percent. Pujols wasn’t aggressive Sunday, even with a starter (Derek Lowe) against whom he had excellent prior career numbers (10-for-28, .357). He took the first pitch in all four of his plate appearances during the defeat.
On one level, Pujols’ pitch-taking makes sense: He wants to size up the repertoire of unfamiliar opponents. But the strategy has backfired. Pujols is seeing an abundance of 0-1 counts. Later in at-bats, he’s been chasing pitches outside the strike zone. Pujols, one of history’s finest sluggers, is exhibiting the telltale symptoms of a lost hitter: He’s taking the strikes and swinging at balls.
Care to guess how many walks Pujols has drawn this season, not including the intentional sort?
Four. He's drawn four unintentional walks this season. One of the game's most feared hitters -- shoot, perhaps the most feared hitter -- has terrorized pitchers into four walks in 22 games. Which says ... something, right? From 2003 through '11, Pujols drew unintentional walks in roughly 10 percent of his plate appearances; this season it's around four percent. Whether that's a "passive" approach or better pitching, it's hard to say. But how much better could the pitching be, really? And in a perverse way, maybe it's not coincidental that Pujols's decline in walk rate is roughly matched by his decline in first-pitch-in-play percentage.
But while not drawing walks obviously isn't good for Pujols's on-base percentage, does his presumed change in approach explain away his poor batting average and paucity of power? Remember, his line-drive percentage is higher than his career rate. Yes, his infield-pop rate is up ... But when you look at the actual numbers, rather than the percentages, you realize just how meaningless those numbers are. Pujols has 12 line drives and four infield pop-ups, and it's ridiculous to draw any meaning from 16 batted balls.
The only indication that's something's "wrong" is that he's struck out 13 times and drawn four unintentional walks. That ratio is completely out of whack with the rest of his career, and does suggest that he's doing something different.
I am 93.4-percent confident that he'll figure this out, and fairly soon. He always has before.