Last Sunday morning, there were jokes. "Dee Gordon has more home runs than Albert Pujols!" "Chone Figgins has more home runs than Albert Pujols!" "Rick Allen has more arms than Albert Pujols has home runs!" Last Sunday morning, the Los Angeles Angels' big investment was sitting on zero home runs for the season, and people were very well aware. It was quite the drought. It was Pujols' longest drought.
Last Sunday afternoon, the jokes stopped. In the bottom of the fifth inning of a game against the Toronto Blue Jays, Pujols stepped in against Drew Hutchison and ripped a 2-and-2 offspeed pitch over the left-field fence. Pujols finally had his first dinger, and he returned to an empty dugout, his teammates playing a friendly prank. When the players returned, there were smiles and slaps and various other celebratory touchings. Pujols received a rousing ovation from the matinee Anaheim crowd. From the instant Pujols completed his home-run trot and stepped on home plate, the crowd continued to cheer for another 53 seconds, even while Kendrys Morales stepped into the box.
It was supposed to be a moment of release. The pressure was supposed to have been relieved. The crowd continued to cheer in part because they'd seen a home run, and in part because they figured that home run would lead to a bunch of other home runs. Now the homers would come in bunches, right? There's no homer as hard to hit as the first one. MLB.com, for its part, published quite the assumption in its game recap:
That was the sentiment. The home run was supposed to be a sign that Albert Pujols was back to being Albert Pujols, after spending a month being Clint Barmes. But that's a dangerous assumption to make. In fairness, it's possible that MLB.com was declaring something else.
That wouldn't be an assumption - that would be a statement of fact. "Albert's back! That's what this is a picture of." I don't know why someone would lead with that headline after a baseball game but sometimes you have to work to keep things fresh.
Anyhow, Pujols hasn't homered since his first homer. Which is fine; he hasn't played that many games since his first homer. This new drought isn't nearly as severe as the first drought. But the thing about Albert Pujols' first home run is that it wasn't about Albert Pujols hitting his first home run. It was about waiting for Albert Pujols to look like classic Albert Pujols. Home run or no, he's still not there.
Pujols was never going to go the season without a single dinger. Weeks before dinger number one, Pujols came inches away from dinger number one when a double hit the top of the fence. Here's where Pujols hit his actual dinger number one:
It was a home run, but it wasn't a jaw-dropping, impressive home run. Well, all home runs are impressive, but you hold a guy like Pujols to a higher standard. According to the Home Run Tracker, Pujols' dinger had a distance of 381 feet, and the ball left the bat at 101.4 miles per hour. In 2011, Pujols hit 30 longer home runs, and 31 harder home runs. In 2010, Pujols hit 35 longer home runs, and 31 harder home runs. The home run that Albert Pujols hit - finally - was among the worst home runs of his career.
That matters. If Angels fans were waiting for Albert Pujols to prove that he still has his old ability, he hasn't proven that yet, home run or no home run. Here's a tool I just started messing around with, and the chart you see below shows Albert Pujols' batted-ball distances from 2008 through the present day. Ground balls and bunts are excluded. The distance data comes from MLB.com Gameday, which says where a ball was fielded, and not where it came down. It's imperfect data but it's still meaningful data, especially in Pujols' case:
It reads left to right, beginning with the 2008 season. The black curve is essentially an average. Compare 2012 to the other years. Specifically, compare the top of 2012 to the tops of the other years. Pujols' maximum batted-ball distance is well short of where it's been. Pujols might not be missing power, but he has yet to demonstrate his power. There is a difference here.
Albert Pujols didn't receive an extended standing ovation because he hit one home run. He received a standing ovation because the fans figured he might begin to look like the player the Angels thought they were signing. You know, basically one of the greatest players in the history of the sport. There's no doubt it was a great relief to get that first homer out of the way, but it's not like Pujols clubbed a pitch 450 feet. He clubbed a pitch 385 feet, and environmental conditions contributed four of those feet. Pressure will return if Pujols continues to perform below where he's supposed to perform. Even with one or more dingers under his belt.
The jokes stopped last Sunday afternoon. It was a temporary respite. Chone Figgins still has more home runs than Albert Pujols. Albert Pujols' OPS is still lower than the lowest slugging percentage he's ever posted. The first home run is out of the way. Great. Nobody thought Albert Pujols would go an entire season with zero home runs. People figured Albert Pujols would go an entire season with at least 30 or 35 or 40 home runs. He hasn't shown that ability in 2012. He's shown the ability to hit a home run, but he hasn't shown the ability to hit many of them.
It was headline news when Pujols finally went deep. The baseball game I was watching cut away live to provide an update. "It's over!" they said. "Albert Pujols hit a home run, at last!" It was a false celebration. On Sunday, May 6, Albert Pujols slugged his first home run of the year. On Friday, May 11, Pujols owns a far lower OPS than Jamey Carroll. Albert Pujols might not turn out to be a catastrophe, and the fact that he's Albert Pujols suggests that he won't, but all the evidence we've collected so far still points in one direction.