Albert Pujols: Still Great, But Not the Same Guy

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There's a really interesting article up right now over at Baseball Prospectus, the venerable analysis site, regarding a subject very near and dear to Cardinals' fans' hearts. What makes it extra nice is the folks at BP have made the full thing available free right out front, rather than sticking it behind the pay wall. 

The subject? Albert Pujols. Actually, to be more specific, the decline of Albert Pujols. Which, of course, we pretty much all have some sort of interest in, one way or the other. 

When the Cardinals offered Albert a huge deal this offseason, only to see him head out for Anaheim and the mega-deal Arte Moreno and the Los Angeles Angels offered him, most of the fans here took a fairly pragmatic, rational view of the situation. Sure, he's a once in a lifetime sort of player, most said, but ten years is an awfully long time. And a quarter of a billion dollars is one hell of a lot of money. Most fans seemed fairly content to trust the club -- not always the easiest thing to do -- even though they were letting a franchise icon walk away. 

The prevailing sentiment: let the Angels pay for his decline. We got the best of him anyway. 

Turns out that sentiment may be even truer than we thought, and we didn't have to wait four years to realize it. 

The gist of the article, written by Sam Miller, is this: Albert Pujols is not the same hitter now he has been the rest of his career

That's not exactly a shocking sentiment, necessarily; we can say that about nearly any player who is moving into the downhill phase of his career. Even if it isn't completely, empirically true, it's been said already several times about Pujols in recent months. The homerless streak he's currently riding -- 74 plate appearances so far, the longest to begin a season of his career -- certainly has given talk radio and internet bozos plenty of fodder to declare Pujols in heavy decline. 

Here's the thing, though: Miller isn't arguing Albert is a worse hitter than he used to be, exactly; rather he's arguing Pujols is a completely different hitter now than he has been for most of his career. 

The main thrust of the article is this: Albert Pujols has changed his plate approach, and rather dramatically. He no longer takes walks at anything approaching his career rate, and has begun swinging at vastly more pitches than he ever used to. 

Ah, but it's early in the season, you say, right? Small sample sizes and all that. He's just in a little bit of a funk. This is all just meaningless chatter to try and explain away why Albert is having a tough start to the season. This will pass. 

You might think that, but that's where this article is really noteworthy. Miller isn't just pulling stats from this season and drawing conclusions. The fact is, Albert's approach changed dramatically last season, or at least in the second half of last season. 

The numbers seem to skew pretty well with observations, as well. There was clearly something different about the way Pujols conducted himself last season, when he walked less and chased more pitches than ever before. There were times last year when it seemed Albert had decided the only way he was going to get to those historic numbers he had become famous for -- .300, 30, and 100 -- was to swing at virtually everything a pitcher threw his way. It was a noticeable, and very puzzling, departure. 

So far this season it's been more of the same, and while it's still early, you can't dismiss the numbers. Albert Pujols has objectively been a different hitter since the first half of 2011. Why that is is really tough to say, but what the effect is isn't nearly so difficult. 

It's a pretty outstanding article; even if you're not into the mathy side of baseball it's worth checking out. Trust me. At the very least, it will give you some new ammo the next time you're arguing with your irritating brother in law that the Cardinals didn't cheap out in letting Pujols head west. 

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