Albert Pujols hit rock bottom on May 4. He went 0-for-4 with a strikeout as Henderson Alvarez of the Toronto Blue Jays pitched a six-hit shutout against the Los Angeles Angels. Pujols' average had dropped to .194 and he had no home runs and just four unintentional walks in 27 games. Pujols was horrible, the Angels were terrible and everyone was wondering if the guy with the $240 million contract would be able to hit .240.
The Angels were 10-17 after that loss. Pujols sat the next day. The Angels won and have gone 31-16 since that shutout defeat, tied with the Yankees for the best mark in baseball.
Yes, the $240 million man has been a big reason why. After homering and doubling in the Angels' 7-3 victory over the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday night -- his two-run shot off Brian Matusz in the fifth gave the Angels a 3-0 lead -- it's a good time to take stock of Pujols. What changed?
After that day off to clear his head, he returned to the lineup on May 6 and homered off Blue Jays rookie Drew Hutchison. In 46 games since hitting rock bottom, he has hit .302/.366/.559 with 12 home runs and 39 RBIs.
What's been the big difference? Let's dig into the numbers from ESPN Stats & Information to see what we can find. If you look at the box on the right, which lists Pujols' breakdown in various categories at the point of rock bottom, after May 4 and then for 2011 and 2009, we can isolate a few things.
He's chasing fewer pitches out of the strike zone -- only 4 percent fewer, but in baseball 4 percent can be huge. This was the big problem I pointed out when addressing Pujols earlier. It's still worth noting, however, that Pujols' chase percentage is still much higher than it was in 2009, when he hit .327/.443/.638.
His line-drive percentage is actually lower since May 4 while his fly-ball rate is up a bit. But for Pujols, this is a good sign. Check out his fly-ball rate in 2009. With Pujols' strength, more fly balls means more home runs. During his homerless streak, he was hitting fly balls; they just weren't going out. Now they are.
Again, however, some of that can be tied to pitch selection. If he's swinging at fewer bad pitches, he gets into better counts.
And, no, Pujols isn't hitting better because he's getting better protection from Mark Trumbo hitting behind. Through May 4, 46.8 percent of the pitches he saw were in the strike zone; 46.8 percent of pitches he saw were classified as "away," meaning on the outside corner or off the plate. Since May 6, 45.6 percent of the pitches he's seen were in the strike zone; 48.4 percent have been "away." So I wouldn't jump to the conclusion that's he's seeing better pitches; he's just been swinging at more hittable pitches.
Here's another example of his change. On the left, his chart through May 4; on the right, his hit chart since.
To me, other than those red dots that signify home runs, it does appear he has done a better job of spraying the ball a little more to right field or to left-center. Early on, he was pulling everything (he was also hitting a lot of foul balls). As everyone expected, he has made some adjustments.
Now, that said, it also remains clear that Pujols is not the hitter he was in 2009. He's still chasing a lot more pitches out of the zone, and his strikeout rate is higher and his walk rate is lower. In 2009, he was the best hitter in baseball. He has been much better since May 6 -- but even at that, his .925 OPS ranks just 26th in baseball since that date; his wOBA (weighted on-base average) of .384 ranks 33rd. If those were his season stats, he'd rank 15th in OPS (just ahead of teammate Mike Trout) and 19th in wOBA.
Those are good numbers, but not $240 million numbers. And you can't pretend April didn't happen. For the season, Pujols still ranks just 80th in OPS and 96th in wOBA.
So maybe Pujols appears to be back for now -- but he appears to be back to where he was in 2011, which would make him one of the better players in baseball. But not the best.
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