Albert Pujols hit a 2-run home run in the first inning Thursday, jump-starting the Cardinals to a 6-2 win. Jake Westbrook threw eight innings en route to his 8th win of the year.
Pujols’ recovery from a broken forearm suffered 19 June has been nothing short of remarkable. Mere mortals take 6 weeks to heal, and another 2-to-3 to regain enough strength in their atrophied muscles to swing a bat with their former authority. The Cardinals first baseman missed 15 games total. He’s also hitting the ball out regularly again; through last night’s game, he was homering once every 10.75 at bats, an improvement of almost 6 at bats from his 16.47 pace through the first 73 games (for the record, his career rate is 1 HR for every 14.12 AB). So he’s back and better than ever, right?
Yes and no. As mentioned above, he’s driving the ball over the wall more. Even with the power surge, though, Pujols’ slash line of .233/.277/.535 since returning is worse than his .279/.355/.500 line before the injury. His drop in batting average can largely be attributed to worse luck on balls in play. His BABIP was .253 up to the injury, and .182 since. His BABIP was due to improve – it was well below his career mark of .311 already in 2011 – even before his injury. It’s still likely to bounce back, and his average should respond.
Although I’m looking at a small sample size, his OBP is off. This appears due to both the low BABIP discussed above, and because he’s walking less. Pujols has walked 4 times in 47 PA since returning, or about once every 15 appearances. Before the injury his rate was once every 8 (that number includes the 4 intentional walks he’s gotten this year). It seems when the Cardinals struggle Pujols presses at the plate (or perhaps Pujols pressing at the plate causes the Cardinals to struggle). Low walk rates can indicate a player who’s trying to do too much.
Why would he be less patient? This year’s lineup is much deeper than that of last year when he walked about once every 7 plate appearances, meaning he doesn’t have to carry the team like he did in years past. Is it a desire to prove he’s 100% healthy in his contract year? Could it be just coincidence? Bernie Miklasz pointed out the Cardinals team OBP has dropped significantly from their .357 April/May to .309 since 1 June, so AP’s low OBP might just be indicative of a change in approach by all the Cardinal hitters.
The Cardinals are a much more dangerous club with Albert in the lineup. He has been productive since returning, which has quelled all discussion about him coming back too early, but he still is not the hitter he was his first 10 years in the league. He needs to maintain his patience at the plate, and continue to hit the ball hard. His next hot streak is just around the corner. Hopefully he turns that corner soon.