Wednesday, May 2, 2012
Why Pujols could still post MVP numbers
By David Schoenfield
Albert Pujols isn't alone among elite hitters who have had prolonged slumps.
The shocking thing about Albert Pujols' start, of course, is that if any player seemed immune to a slump it was him.
After all, this is player who ranks eighth all time in career adjusted OPS, behind seven guys named Ruth, Williams, Bonds, Gehrig, Hornsby, Mantle and Brouthers. (Well, maybe you don't know that last guy. That's Dan Brouthers, who played in the 19th century). Pujols never had a bad month. OK, he did twice hit under .250 in a month -- July of 2001, his rookie season, when he hit .241 but still hit four home runs and had a .793 OPS; and last April, when he hit .245 but slugged seven home runs.
But we're now 24 games into the season and Pujols is homerless with a feeble .208/.255/.292 line. I broke down his issues last week, but I wanted to take another approach. Have other all-time great hitters ever gone through a similar spell while still in their prime seasons? I examined seven of the best post-World War II hitters to see.
Stan Musial April 15-June 12, 1947: 44 games, .202/.298/.345, 5 HR, 23 BB, 13 SO Musial didn't quite have the power of Pujols but did top 30 home runs six times. Not surprisingly for a guy who hit .300 for the first 16 seasons of his career, he didn't suffer many dry spells. As it turns out, even his slow start in 1947 was caused by bad health -- appendicitis and tonsillitis.
Willie Mays April 17-May 13, 1956: 22 games, .209/.303/.384, 3 HR, 11 BB, 8 SO Mays actually went through a few slumps in his career, unusual for hitters of his caliber. Here's one from the start of the 1956 season. Through 42 games he still had just four home runs. Good news for Angels fans: Mays still finished with 36 home runs as he hit six home runs in both June and July, nine in August and 11 in September.
July 3-Aug. 3, 1958: 30 games, .250/.356/.313, 0 HR, 19 BB, 10 SO Mays went through a long homerless drought in 1958. Before the drought, he missed two games while hospitalized with fatigue. In fact, going back to May, Mays would hit just three home runs over a 65-game stretch. One big difference between this slump and Pujols' slump: Mays had 19 walks and 10 strikeouts while Pujols has six walks and 14 strikeouts. He'd finish the year hitting .347 with 29 home runs.
May 28-June 25, 1959: 27 games, .265/.318/.367, 1 HR, 8 BB, 8 SO According James Hirsch's "Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend," Mays battled a couple injuries during his span. On June 1, a home-plate collision with Del Rise left him with bruised shins. Rice broke his leg on the play and Mays left the game. Three days later, Mays hurt his shoulder in another home-plate collision. He played for a few days after that but then missed five games, available only to pinch-hit.
Aug. 28-Sept. 30, 1960: 32 games, .288/.343/.400, 0 HR, 9 BB, 10 SO Mays hit .319 with 20 home runs in 1960, but only a home run on the final day of the season prevented a homerless September. Still, he managed to hit .288 during this power drought.
April 22-May 15, 1963: 22 games, .244/.330/.329, 1 HR, 11 BB, 10 SO Now 32 -- the same age as Pujols -- Mays appeared to have just had a slow stretch soon after the season began. He'd still finish with a .314 average and 38 home runs and finish fifth in the MVP vote. Best-case scenario for Pujols?
June 24-July 31, 1965: 22 games, .223/.289/301, 2 HR, 10 BB, 11 SO One final slump for Mays, but this one was another injury-related one. According to Hirsch's book, Mays pulled groin muscle on June 30 and then bruised his thigh and hip in a home-plate collision on July 10 that forced him to leave the game. Nonetheless, he'd still end up with one of his greatest seasons: a career-high 52 home runs and his second MVP trophy.
Hank Aaron June 1-June 25, 1956: 28 games, .227/.277/.327, 1 HR, 8 BB, 10 SO Few players matched the Aaron's consistency. This was just his second full season, still 22 years old. He'd end up winning the batting title that year with a .328 mark.
April 25-May 28, 1958: 31 games, .208/.288/.320 1 HR, 14 BB, 14 SO Despite this dry spell, Aaron would finish at .326 with 30 home runs.
May 2-June 9, 1968: 32 games, .179/.268/.325, 3 HR, 16 BB, 15 SO Aaron was 34 by now and 1968 was the famous Year of the Pitcher. Aaron would recover to hit .287 with 29 home runs -- big numbers for that season, as he ranked fifth in the NL in home runs.
Barry Bonds April 8-May 19, 1991: 31 games, .182/.272/.255, 2 HR, 14 BB, 21 SO
I checked Bonds from 1990 to 1999, and this was the only bad stretch he had. It was likely caused by a bruised thumb that did force him to miss four games in early April and took time to heal.
July 28-Sept. 1, 1995: 33 games, .208/.386/.396, 4 HR, 28 BB, 25 SO Here's another low-average stretch for Bonds, but even then he hit a few home runs and drew 28 walks in 33 games. Again, that's one big problem Pujols is having: his walk rate has declined significantly.
Manny Ramirez Sept. 1995: .247/.314/.333, 1 HR in 24 games Not too many bad months for Ramirez. This one came at the end of his first full season in the majors.
April 2007: 24 games, .202/.314/.315, 2 HR, 15 BB, 15 SO Another slow stretch. Ramirez would finish with a .296 average and 20 home runs in 133 games.
Alex Rodriguez Sept. 1999: .183, but seven home runs
June 1-June 26, 2006: 22 games, .213/.351/.325, 2 HR, 15 BB, 24 SO
July 26-August 20, 2010: 20 games, .195/.241/.416, 5 HR, 5 BB, 18 SO
A-Rod has had a few low-average periods in his career, but has usually kept his power intact. That poor 2010 stretch includes various ailments -- hip flexor tendinitis, a bruised shin and a strained calf muscle.
Cabrera has essentially been slump-proof so far. This is the worst month on his record and it was still a big spike compared to what Pujols has done.
Why does this all mean? I guess there is enough anecdotal evidence here that even superstar hitters in the prime (or very near their prime) can still have rough stretches for 20-plus games. Look, Pujols isn't going to turn into a .220 hitter overnight. Yes, he's undoubtedly hit into some bad luck so far. Maybe like Willie Mays in 1963 or 1965 he can suffer through this slump and still put up MVP numbers. Hey, it's one reason we watch. Because we don't really know, do we?
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.