I’ve noted with some interest in the last few days that some west coast MLB scribes are asking “What’s wrong with Albert Pujols?” because #5 doesn’t have any home runs yet this season (49 AB). I think the question they should be asking is this: why isn’t Albert Pujols walking anymore?
Last season Albert walked 61 times in 651 plate appearances, which is a rate of walking once every 10.67 times at bat. That’s the least he’s walked in his career.
His rate in years previous to 2011:
2010: walked every 6.8 times
2009: walked every 6 times
2008: every 6.16 times
2007: every 6.86
2006: every 6.89
2005: every 7.12
What’s obvious is this: up until 2011, Albert Pujols was a phenomenally selective hitter. His lack of strikeouts and high walk rate suggest the obvious: a Hall of Fame-like ability to judge the strike zone and mash pitches within it. Perhaps only fellows like Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Stan Musial possessed that kind of ability among hitters of the post-war era.
A quick visit to FanGraphs reinforces this. Those fine folks track how often a guy swings at pitches outside the strike zone. That’s abbreviated as O-Swing%, but is frequently referred to as “chase rate”–the rate at which a guy chases pitches out of the zone.
For a sizable portion of his career, Albert Pujols had a ridiculously low chase rate below 20%. In fact, from 2002 through the 2009 season, Albert’s average chase rate covering all those seasons was below 20%. That’s phenomenal.
In 2007 his O-Swing was 18.3%. In 2008 it jumped to 21.6%. In 2009 it went up again to 22.9%. No biggie. Those are still ridiculously low chase rates.
They show something of a trend, though, don’t they?
In 2010 Albert’s o-swing% really jumped: 27.5%. That’s almost mortal.
In 2011: 31.8%. That’s…well, that’s about what a lot of other great ballplayers put up–guys who don’t have 10-year, $250m contracts.
So far in 2012, and again the sample size is small: 44.7% chase rate.
Where are we going with this?
For that part of the deal, we want to look back at some of the things that Albert and his hitting coaches have written or said in public about his swing, back a few years ago. For starters, there’s this fascinating story from 2006. Apparently in 1921, some researchers at Columbia University in New York decided to try to measure the hand-eye coordination (and how that affected things like decisions to swing) for a fellow named Babe Ruth. GQ Magazine persuaded Albert to undgergo the same set of tests at Washington University in St. Louis. Result: Pujols, like Ruth, possessed an almost supernatural hand-eye coordination. Like Ruth, he had an amazing ability for his brain to make effective use of information given by his eyes and act upon it in fractions of a second. Additionally, you’d frequently hear his manager, hitting coach, and peers talk about how Albert seemed able to wait a fraction of a second longer than any other hitter in the game, with a swing so lightning quick that he was able to see a pitch as a strike with more assuredness, and then able to act on that information and mash the ball.
All of which leads me to believe that Albert’s swing when he was a younger man with better eyes and faster reflexes was a miracle of hand-eye coordination unlike anything we’ve ever seen…unless you’re old enough to have seen Ted Williams hit. What I guess we’re starting to see is that Albert has to “cheat” a little on his swing, and has to start it earlier than he used to, and the result is that he swings at more pitches out of the zone than ever before. Albert is still Albert. Even swinging at pitches outside the zone, he’s still going to make contact with far more of them than anyone else out there…but less often is that contact going to be him squaring up a pitch.
I think the guy will hit .300-ish for the Angels, and I think he’ll untrack the power and sock 30-35 HR for them. But I also am not sure I expect him to be able to do that 4 years from now, much less 6 or 10.