The idea that Albert Pujols, nine-time All-Star and three-time MVP, carries any risk at all is an entirely new concept. He has been widely regarded as a first-round fantasy pick for the past decade, and more often than not he has been considered top three, if not No. 1. All told, popular opinion on the slugger hasn't changed much in 2013. He ranks as the No. 5 player in ESPN live draft results, and he ranks seventh overall in ESPN's staff rankings. In other words, he's being drafted like he's still elite. Of course, the trouble with treating Pujols like he's still elite is that, well, he's not.
When discussing Pujols and his present-day value, it's easy to use his illustrious career as a crutch. Frankly, it's hard not to. Over his 12-year career, Pujols has averaged a .325 batting average, 40 home runs, 120 RBIs, 115 runs and eight stolen bases per season. That's nothing short of amazing. Consider this: Miguel Cabrera, who is arguably the best hitter in baseball right now, has hit those Triple Crown category benchmarks in a single season only once in his 10-year career.
We can't, however, let those incredible feats cloud our judgment about the player Pujols has been the past couple of years, and more important, the player he'll be in 2013. The argument can be made that while Pujols is no longer fantasy's No. 1 player, he's still worth a first-round pick, because he has very little downside. After all, the worst season of his career still produced a .285 batting average with 30 home runs and 105 RBIs. While that argument holds some validity, it assumes, of course, that his numbers will stop regressing. Unfortunately, there's little reason to think they will.
It's no secret that the slugger has been showing signs of decline in recent seasons, but it's important to realize just how far his skill set has deteriorated over the past several years. What's perhaps most disconcerting about Pujols is the rate at which his plate discipline has regressed. Calling it a "downward spiral" wouldn't be that far off. The table below highlights Pujols' year-to-year "O-Swing" percentage, which is the percentage of pitches a hitter swings at outside the strike zone.
Data courtesy of Fangraphs.com.
Meanwhile, here's his "Z-Swing" percentage, which is the percentage of pitches a hitter swings at inside the strike zone:
Data courtesy of Fangraphs.com.
In short, Pujols just isn't the same hitter he was a few years ago. He's expanding the strike zone more and more every season, and he's now swinging at roughly twice as many pitches outside the zone as he did five years ago. He's even swinging at fewer pitches inside the strike zone. And that's not all. Here's a quick-and-dirty look at the rest of the former Cardinal's trends:
" His on-base percentage has fallen every season since 2008, going from .462 to a career-low .343 last year.
" His slugging percentage has declined each season since 2009, going from .658 to a career-low.516 last year.
" His isolated power has gone down each season since 2009, going from .331 to a career-low .231 last year.
" His strikeout rate has increased three of the past four years, culminating in a career-high 11.3 percent last year.
" His walk rate has decreased each year since 2009, going from 16.4 percent to a career-low 7.8 percent last year.
Not surprisingly, Pujols' 5x5 fantasy stats have also fallen across the board, in conjunction with the numbers above. His RBI total was on a three-year decline before receiving a slight bump last year, and the rest of his fantasy statistics -- batting average, home runs, runs scored and stolen bases -- have declined every season since 2009. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for a guy going in the first round.
Pujols' slow start in 2012, his first season with the Los Angeles Angels, brought plenty of speculation about whether we were seeing the beginning of the end. He batted .217/.265/.304 in April, with zero home runs and just four RBIs. His first home run didn't come until May 6. From that point on, though, Pujols batted .305/.365/.569, easing the concerns of fantasy owners everywhere. However, despite his "turnaround," he sported a .285/.336/.431 slash line and hit just one home run over the season's final 32 games. So if the way Pujols' 2012 season began was unsettling, then the way it ended shouldn't have provided much relief.
It's important to re-emphasize the fact that Pujols didn't just have a down season in 2012, it was the culmination of a skill set that has been declining over the past four or five years. That's an important distinction to make. If Pujols had displayed a stable skill set from 2008-2011 and then had a down year in 2012, there'd be reason to think it was an aberration and that a bounce-back in 2013 would be likely. Instead, we've seen year after year of declining production and regressing skills. The trends suggest things will only get worse this season.
How much worse? Well, Pujols , the top first baseman being selected in early drafts (and, as noted above, No. 5 overall), finished last season as the No. 6 first baseman and the No. 32 player overall, according to the ESPN Player Rater. Based on the way his career is trending, it's not a stretch to think that Pujols, now 33 years old and coming off knee surgery, could slip outside the top 40 or 50 this season. Maybe that seems like a stretch for a guy who has been so productive for so many years, but what indication do we have that he's somehow going to put the brakes on this downhill skid?
It's time we acknowledge what Pujols is now and stop treating him like the player he once was. The 2013 version of the future Hall of Famer is a good player who carries plenty of fantasy value. However, the 2013 version also shouldn't be selected in the first couple of rounds on draft day, much less in the top five overall. The risk, as strange as it may sound, is just too great.