By Mike Moritz
Albert Pujols. In fact, this decline that we MIGHT be witnessing started in September of 2010, when his line drive rate dropped off to a below average 14%. And this year, Pujols has a mere 13% line drive rate as his ground ball rate has risen to 48.1%, a 7.5% increase from his career mark. Woah. Is this seriously happening? At age 31?
Well we shouldn't worry for another two-ish weeks. Line drive rates tend to stabilize around 150 PAs into the season and ground ball rate doesn't stabilize until 200. So far Pujols has 94.
His walk rate is also down considerably, to 8.5% compared to his 13.4% career mark. But then again, walk rate doesn't stabilize until 200 PAs as well.
While his power is in line with what it should be for Pujols (.262 ISO, 39% fly ball rate), his batting average is has been taking a hit from a really low .200 BABIP.
Although some of this can blamed on the scary-low line drive rate, some of this can be possibly be blamed on Mark McGwire, the Cardinals hitting coach. The McGwire-as-Coach experiment has not looked good so far. Brendon Ryan being a "big project" last year really fucked them over, and now he's a Mariner. I am not sure what exactly McGwire is doing, if anything, but the attempted approach that he has going might be having a negative affect on Pujols.
What ever the case may be, this is a somewhat shaky situation. ZIPS updated projection for Pujols is now projecting him for a .299/.397/.572 slash line. It would be the first time that Pujols would hit below .300 (.312 to be exact), the second time that he would have an OBP below .400 and the forth time he would have a SLG below .600. As amazing as it is, it is still scary to think that one of the greatest players of all-time MIGHT be hitting his decline. His BABIP has been under .300 in the past two seasons in a row (2009 and 2010) which suggests that something could be happening soon, but I am probably wrong about that.
Normally, we would not really keep a tight note on Pujols's hitting peripherals, we just assume that he is doing his usual thing, but for at least the next month-ish, we should be carefully examining his statistics. Small sample sizes are really a pain, but we just are not used to seeing Pujols struggle to hit for a good average. Chances are that he returns to form soon enough and that his luck will change back to normal. And honestly, even if his peripherals return to normal, he might still get "BABIP'd" (a term that I have officially coined). Almost every player in the majors, through out somewhere in their career, gets BABIP'd for either better or worse for the length of about a season. This might be the year that he gets hit by a really low BABIP. Or maybe this is indeed the beginning of a decline for one the greatest in baseball history. And if this is the beggining of the end for Pujols, the question becomes, "How much will this affect his new contract for the 2012 season and beyond?"
As Carson Cistulli of Fangraphs likes to say, "Only time will tell".
(Statistics in courtesy of: fangraphs.com)