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April 24, 2012

Pebble Hunting

Albert Pujols Never Walks

by Sam Miller

In a press conference at the Winter Meetings, Angels GM Jerry Dipoto was asked why Albert Pujols was worth a long-term deal when so many other stars have disappointed. Here’s Dipoto:

I'll say this, that in regard to the evolution of a hitter, as hitters begin to age, into their 30s, to whatever point you can project, there's a certain quality or trait in a hitter, the patience, that they exhibit. Albert has had an extraordinary career in regard to maintaining control over the strike zone.

There are all sorts of reasons to love Albert Pujols, and all sorts of reasons to give literally tons of money to him. One of those reasons, the one Dipoto identified, is that he has always walked a lot. Of course, walks can be misleading. Sammy Sosa once drew 116 walks, and Daric Barton once drew 110 walks, and nobody would draw the same conclusions about Sosa and Barton based on their walk totals. But Albert Pujols seemed to be somewhere between Sosa and Barton, a guy who drew walks because pitchers respected him and a guy who drew walks because he knew how to draw walks. In 2009, he drew 115 walks, leading the National League and setting a career high. Of the 115, 44—a record for right-handed hitters—were intentional, but that still left 71 that Pujols drew honestly, the 15th-most in the National League, and right in line with Pujols’ career totals:

2001: 63 unintentional walks
2002: 59
2003: 67
2004: 72
2005: 70
2006: 64
2007: 77
2008: 70
2009: 71
2010: 65

And then 2011 happened. Albert Pujols finished fifth in MVP voting, finished third in the NL in home runs, but walked unintentionally just 46 times, a career low. Even the number 46 is a bit misleading. In the second half, he drew just 15 unintentional walks. Jeff Francoeur drew 15 unintentional walks in the second half of 2011. Excluding intentional passes, Jeff Francouer and Albert Pujols walked the same number of times in the second half. I’m going to keep repeating this fact until each of you has audibly said “wow.” Jeff Francouer and Albert Pujols walked the same number of times in the second half of 2011. Jeff Francouer and Albert Pujols walked the same number of times in the second half of 2011. We ready to move on?

And then Albert Pujols switched teams and kept the low walk rate: three unintentional walks in the first 16 games of the season. Albert Pujols is an entirely new hitter than he used to be. This is something to reckon with.

Is Albert Pujols swinging more?
In a minute, we’re going to look at the pitches Albert Pujols is swinging at. That’s a bit of a complicated question, because the pitch-location data is limited and, in some cases, inconsistent. But it’s very easy to answer the question of whether he is swinging more.

2009: 42 percent
2010: 42 percent
2012: 49 percent

Yes, sample size, for sure. Albert Pujols has swung at more pitches this year, but because we're wary of sample size we know that it doesn’t mean he’ll keep swinging at more pitches this year—even if swing rate is just about fastest thing to stabilize

But I skipped 2011 for a reason. Pujols’ swing rate in 2011 was 44 percent, which makes you think that 2012 would probably regress toward the higher, but not too high, swing rate of 2011. But 44 percent in 2011 is really misleading.

First half of 2011: 41 percent
Second half of 2011: 49 percent

There is no gradual trend here. Albert Pujols never swung at 44 percent of pitches. He just started swinging at 49 percent, darned near overnight, and Albert Pujols swings at 49 percent of pitches now. I’m less concerned about the sample-size thing knowing that.

Is Albert Pujols swinging at worse pitches?
Walks are great, but if Pujols is simply swinging at more hittable pitches it might not be bad at all. He doesn’t seem to be swinging more at hittable pitches.

According to our plate-discipline numbers, Pujols swung at 26 percent of pitches outside the zone in 2010 and 29 percent in 2011. We haven't calculated his 2012 rate yet, but StatCorner's numbers have been similar to our numbers and show a spike: 27 percent in 2010, 33 percent in 2011, 35 percent this year. StatCorner's figures include intentional balls, too; Pujols sees fewer intentional balls now, so on pitches that require him to make a decision, the difference is growing even more quickly. (In case you're wondering, the overall swing rates above exclude intentional balls, so that isn't an explanation for why Pujols is swinging at more pitches overall.) 

He’s also swinging at more off-speed pitches. Year-by-year swing percentages for sliders+curves+changeups:

2009: 40 percent
2010: 40 percent
First half 2011: 39 percent
Second half 2011: 47 percent
2012: 53 percent

In 2011, Pujols saw 113 sliders that were about a half-inch or more off the plate outside. Sixty-four of them came in the first half, and Pujols swung at 12 of those. Forty-nine of them came in the second half, and Pujols swung at 17 of those. Fifteen fewer outside sliders, five more swings.

So, yes, Albert Pujols is swinging at worse pitches. In some cases, the very worst pitches:

Is Albert Pujols simply pressing?
I mean, maybe. But, specifically, did he show the same swinging tendencies when he started slowly last year, before he started hitting again? No. Through June 1, 2011, when Pujols had a .755 OPS and was coming out of the two worst full months of his career, he had swung at just 41 percent of pitches and just 37 percent of curve/change/sliders. As noted, Pujols began swinging more midway through the 2011 season, and the trend is perhaps accelerating during—but not necessarily because of—his slump.

Are pitchers being more aggressive and throwing Pujols more strikes?
In other words, is Pujols walking less because pitchers are simply walking him less? That doesn't seem to be it. According to our data, based on Mike Fast’s strike zone definitions, pitchers in 2010 threw 48 percent of pitches to Pujols in the strike zone, and 47 percent in 2011. Stat Corner’s numbers are similar to ours and show no significant rise for 2012. Pitchers also aren’t throwing him more fastballs this year than they did in 2009 and 2010.

Is this just noise?
It’s hard to imagine this is nothing. As noted above, swing rates stabilize almost immediately. Pujols’ swing rates have never shown much variance in his career. He has never topped 45 percent of pitches swung at. But going back to the All-Star break we have nearly two-thirds of a season’s worth of plate appearances, and he is swinging at nearly 20 percent more pitches than he had been. He is just a different hitter. Over the past three seasons, Todd Helton has swung at 41 percent of pitches, and Vernon Wells has swung at 49 percent of pitches. Albert Pujols has gone from Todd Helton’s approach to Vernon Wells’ approach.

I wouldn't nearly go so far as to say it's the reason Pujols has started slowly this year. He hit .319/.375/.584 in the second half of 2011, despite expanding his strike zone. It’s the reason he’s not walking, but it’s not necessarily the reason he’s not hitting. But, man. Ten years. Ten years means nearly infinite ways for things to go wrong, most of which we never see coming, and this might just be one of those ways we never saw coming. (“He has the strike-zone control of a hit-for-average, contact guy," Angels GM Jerry Dipoto reiterated this spring.)

The Angels signed Albert Pujols for 10 years because even the decline phase of a .328/.420/.617 hitter should be pretty good. It turns out they’re getting a different hitter entirely. Probably a great hitter, maybe still the best hitter, and if there's anything you take from this piece, I really hope it's not that Albert Pujols is anything less than awesome still. He is awesome still, and I hate all of you who quit reading way up there and think that I'm giving up on Pujols. But he's a different hitter. Are his eyes getting worse? Are his reactions getting worse? Is he guessing at pitches to compensate for slowed bat speed? Is he in his own head? Is this related to his wrist injury last June, the one he came back from with almost miraculous speed? Or is it all nothing, or even part of Pujols' evolution as a hitter, and will the next seven or eight years at least work out beautifully for the Angels? Quite possibly! But, man. Ten years.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

Related Content:  Plate Discipline,  Albert Pujols

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