Not what you expect

Since you follow the St Louis Cardinals, you know they are hosting the San Diego Padres this week.  If you read this site with any regularity you know I blog about the San Diego Padres in my spare time.  So naturally this post will be about last night’s 4-3 win over those Padres, right?

Nope.  Today’s post is about Albert Pujols.  Why?  Because I had the opportunity to watch him hit in person last Sunday.

Petco Park has a well deserved reputation as a pitcher’s park.  Even Pujols has trouble driving the ball there.  Petco is one of only 4 NL ballparks in which Pujols has a career OPS of less than .900, and of the other three only AT&T Park is still in use.  Even so, Pujols has 7 career home runs against the Padres and has homered at least once in every series since 2008.  Yeah, he’s struggled mightily this season, but I knew – KNEW – he was hitting one out this weekend.

He came close on Saturday night, but didn’t homer against these Padres.  Pujols went 2-for-12 in the series, with 3 walks, and two measly singles.  On Sunday, he didn’t hit the ball out of the infield.  Yes you read that correctly.

For the heck of it, I tracked the pitch sequence to him for all his at-bats.

  • AB 1 – top 1st, runner on third, 1 out:  Fastball (ball), slider (swinging strike), slider (ball), slider (hit into play) – weak grounder onto the dirt in front of home, 2-3 on the putout.
  • AB 2 – top 3rd, 0 on, 2 out:  slider (ball), fastball (ball), slider (ball), fastball (ball) – walk.  The Padres placed their second baseman on the shortstop side of second for Pujols’ at bats with no one on.
  • AB 3 – top 5, 0 on, 2 out:  fastball (ball), fastball (ball), slider (swinging strike), fastball (ball), slider (hit into play) –  line out to third.  Padres 3B Chase Headley fell to his left to catch it.
  • AB 4 – top 8, leadoff:  fastball (swinging strike), fastball (foul tip), slider (ball), fastball (hit into play) – broken bat ground out to short, 6-3 on putout.
  • AB 5 – top 10, runner on second, 1 out:  slider (ball), fastball (called strike), fastball (foul), slider (ball), slider (ball), fastball (ball) – walk
  • AB 6 – top 12, leadoff:  fastball (ball) … hey look! a Butterfly! – ground out to third, 5-3 on the putout.  I, uh, kind of lost focus 4 hours in.

What can we glean from this?  A couple of things.  First, the Padres worked Pujols exclusively with fastballs and sliders away; rarely did they come in to him.  Which makes sense, since he is trying to pull everything.  A recent Fangraphs article stated he’s pulled 71% of the balls he’s put into play this season, and Sunday’s effort backs that up as he pulled 3 of the 4 balls he put into play.

Second, of the 9 strikes he saw, he swung at an astonishing 8 of them.  That’s incredible to me.  It didn’t matter if he was ahead, even, or behind in the count, Albert was hacking.  His swing percentage this season is the highest of his career, and I begin to understand why.  It’s also entirely possible the sliders he swung at were borderline strikes, and if so he really is expanding his zone at the plate.  Obviously I have no idea why he would do that, but it really looks like he’s trying too hard to justify his contract.

One other thing leapt out at me and that is his stance.  In years past I remember Pujols getting set in the box and keeping everything quiet, even his hands.  This year he’s got a front foot tap that appears to be a timing mechanism.  It looks a lot like what Scott Rolen does when he hits, but unlike Rolen he doesn’t do it all the time.  I may be wildly off base, but it really seemed to me he would do that if he thought a fastball was coming.  He definitely did it in fastball counts.

Like most of the baseball-watching world I have no doubt Pujols will snap out of it and return to the form he had his first 11 years in the league.  None of us are used to watching him struggle at the plate like he is.  It is not pleasant to watch, and in all seriousness I hope he snaps out of it sooner rather than later.

Mike Metzger is a freelance writer based in San Diego.  He blogs about the Padres in his spare time.

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