Anaheim, CA, USA; Los Angeles Angels first baseman Albert Pujols reacts after striking out against the Baltimore Orioles at Angel Stadium. Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE
Albert Pujols is off to a terrible start in Anaheim. Many think it's only a matter of time before he turns it around. What if he can't? There's a cautionary tale for Albert from just a year ago.
Stop me if you've heard this one before. (Don't, really; hear me out.)
A power-hitting first baseman, who has put up consistent numbers near the top of his league in several offensive categories for many seasons, signs a big free-agent contract with a team in the other league.
Expectations are high both for the hitter and the team going into the season.
And then the hitter flops. He doesn't just have a bit of a slow start, he has a horrendous start, the worst of his career.
I'm not talking about Albert Pujols here, though all of those facts fit what he's going through. I'm talking about Adam Dunn, who signed a four-year, $56 million deal with the White Sox before the 2011 season. After they signed Dunn, they created a marketing slogan that said they were "All In" to winning a division title and going far into October.
Dunn hit a home run in his first White Sox game... and then plummeted into the worst year of his career. In fact, it was just about the worst year of anyone's career; he doesn't appear in record books for many "worsts" because his manager, Ozzie Guillen, held him out of enough September games that he fell six plate appearances short of qualifying for those records.
Pujols has 107 plate appearances this season and is hitting .208/.252/.287 -- by far the worst such stretch of his career. And we're not really talking small-sample-size any more; this is now one-sixth of the season. Pujols' team racked Twins pitching for 15 hits on Wednesday night. Pujols had just one of those hits, a single. And hardly anyone noticed he went 1-for-5, because his teammate Jered Weaver threw a no-hitter. Thanks, Jered!
When Adam Dunn had 107 plate appearances in 2011, he was hitting .149/.308/.276 with three home runs and 33 strikeouts, although that halfway-decent OBP appeared because he'd drawn 19 walks. Perhaps ominously for Pujols, Dunn finished 2011 with numbers very similar to that: .159/.292/.277 with just 11 home runs. Dunn never got out of his rut, and calling it a "rut" is charitable; it was an abyss.
Pujols, who has both hit home runs and drawn walks with amazing frequency and consistency over his career to date, has done neither so far this season. He has 21 hits, eight of which are doubles, and no home runs. He's drawn four unintentional walks. Freak comparative number, which means almost nothing but is humorous anyway: The Cubs' Tony Campana, who has very little power and no extra-base hits at all this season, has a slugging percentage 73 points higher than Pujols'.
The point of this exercise is to pose the question: "What if Albert Pujols is having an Adam Dunn season?" He very well might; he's almost exactly the same age as Dunn (two months younger), and going through many of the same things Dunn faced: new team, new league, new city, and pressure to perform. He's at an age where some players begin to decline. It can be argued that the pressure could be even greater on Pujols because of his much larger contract and the presumption that he was brought in to make the Angels, at the very least, a perennial playoff team. They look quite far from that at this time.
It was pointed out during Wednesday night's Angels telecast that the last player before Pujols to have 35 or more home runs in a season and go this far into the following year with none was Don Baylor in 1980. Baylor was AL MVP in 1979 when he hit .296/.371/.530 with 39 home runs; he led the AL in both runs (120) and RBI (139).
Baylor hit five home runs in 1980. But he had an excuse; he had two serious injuries that limited him to 90 games. Baylor did come back and have several solid seasons after 1980, but never hit at MVP level again.
There's potential good news for Pujols, if he is indeed having a year like Adam Dunn's 2011. Dunn is off to a good start this year, currently hitting .238/.385/.536; his 921 OPS is near his pre-2011 level and he's among the league leaders again in home runs, RBI, walks and slugging percentage.
But Pujols might have to go through a 2011 Dunn-like season before he gets there. With each 1-for-5, it's looking more and more like 2012 could be a lost year for the Angels first baseman.