Albert Pujols #5 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim runs home to score in the third inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Angel Stadium of Anaheim in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
Albert Pujols has been great since his early-season struggles. Will we ever see the Albert Pujols who used to be an MVP candidate every season, though?
Albert Pujols hit a couple of home runs Tuesday night, and he's now got the highest OPS in the American League since the middle of May. This, of course, comes after a terribly slow start that made some of us wonder if Pujols had simply lost it. Ah, but not to worry, right?
In addition to leading the league in OPS since May 15 – a span of 68 games – Pujols also leads the league in homers, RBIs, and slugging percentage and ranks fourth in batting average and on-base percentage. Kind of makes all that early speculation about whether he was suddenly washed-up seem pretty silly now, huh?
There was one small reason to think there was something wrong with Albert Pujols: his numbers. Through the 14th of May, Pujols owned a .197 batting average. More alarmingly, to me anyway: He'd drawn seven walks while striking out 18 times. This, after a whole season that saw Pujols draw only 45 unintentional walks; in his best seasons, Pujols drew around 70 unintentional walks per season.
It just seemed that, for whatever reason, Pujols was losing his ability to control the strike zone. And that the result was weak swings and poor statistics. Maybe.
I wrote as much in May, and shortly afterward was at lunch with a friend and longtime baseball observer. He didn't buy my theory. He thought it was just sample-size thing, and that Pujols would soon return to his usual ways. There certainly was some evidence for this. For one thing, Pujols had been fantastically potent in spring training. For another, he was Albert Pujols.
Obviously, my friend was right.
I will mention that from 2008 through '10, Pujols led the National League in OPS+ in each season, with a 184 aggregate. From 2003 through '10, his OPS+ was 177.
Since Opening Day in 2011, Pujols has a 146 OPS+. While it's pretty clear that Pujols remains an outstanding hitter, it seems nearly as clear that he's no longer the hitter he was.
Which of course shouldn't be a surprise. With the exception of Barry Bonds, hitters generally decline in their 30s. Pujols turned 32 last winter. The question really isn't whether he'll decline; it's the nature of the decline. Pujols finished last season with 12 more strikeouts than (unintentional) walks. This season, he's on pace to strike out nearly 20 more times than he walks.
More prosaically: Pujols is going to finish the season with 40-50 unintentional walks. It's difficult, though not impossible, to rank among the game's best hitters with that many unintentional walks. There was a time when you essentially couldn't pitch to Albert Pujols. He had no holes, which left pitchers trying to fool him or hit perfect spots, both of which were difficult propositions.
Now, you can pitch to Albert Pujols. He used to swing at around one-fourth of the pitches outside the strike zone; now he's swinging at roughly a third of them. That's a significant difference.
Not so long ago, Pujols was the best hitter on the planet.
Fifty-seven players have at least 1,000 plate appearances over the last two seasons. The best OPS+ among them belongs to Miguel Cabrera. Albert Pujols ranks eighth, between Carlos Beltrán and Paul Konerko. He's just not the hitter he once was. Which is perfectly natural, but might be something of a shock to the franchise that owes Pujols $218 million after this season. Good as it's become.