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RotoAuthority Unscripted: What to Do with Albert Pujols?

Last week, I got into a comments debate about Albert Pujols with a reader known only as “Tom.” We went back and forth on Pujols’ value, his outlook for the rest of the season, and whether or not a particular trade involving a number of high profile players makes sense. At one point I--harried with the huge demands of being a big-time fantasy expert (or was it my day job?)--promised to put off finishing my analysis of Albert Pujols. 

Well, Tom, here’s your answer. Since this is RotoAuthority Unscripted, I promise to go into this article and my investigation without cherry-picking the evidence to fit my original recommendation—I’ll go where the facts lead me. As best as I can understand them. Also, I promise not to make this a particularly well-organized article. I take the “unscripted” label very seriously.

For those of you not old enough to remember, Albert Pujols was once among the greatest players to ever live, spending 10 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, with lows of 32 homers, .299 batting average, 99 RBI, 99 Runs Scored, and 143 Games Played. Seriously, those are the worst numbers he put up in the decade from 2001-2011. So…you could say that things have changed somewhat, as Pujols has only exceeded those career lows in one stat since moving to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. (Is that even still their name? Can’t we just go back to California Angels?) He drove in 105 RBI in 2012. It’s been a story of ageing, huge paydays, dropping BABIP’s, bad defence, the inability to run, and plantar fasciitis. Maybe LA isn’t for everyone.

So, that’s the past, but it’s an important backdrop to what’s going on with Pujols now, because your fantasy team isn’t locked into a hundred ten-year contract with him, and his play this year hasn’t been unambiguously good or bad. So, is he someone to trade for or someone to trade away? And what can we really expect to see from him for the next four months?

 Here’s the Pujolsian line thus far in 2014.

Runs

HR

RBI

SB

AVG

OBP

SLG

35

15

35

2

.245

.304

.486

 And here are some of his slightly-farther-under-the-hood numbers.

BB%

SO%

ISO

BABIP

7.0%

12.6%

.241

.226

So his production has been pretty ambiguous: the power is there (15 homers ties him for 8th in MLB) but he’s killing you in average and probably worse in OBP. His ISO is pretty good for the “New Albert” (starting 2011), and actually fits into the lower range of the earlier, better part of his career. His BABIP, however is by far the worst of his career and marks the third year in a row of decline.

Nice! We can chalk Albert’s struggles up to some bad luck, assume that his average will bounce back and be happy that it hasn’t hurt his power in the meantime. Right?

With a mid-career player, or one who hasn’t been hobbled by injuries that line of thinking would work just fine. But that’s not what we have. There are two other serious possible explanations for Pujols’ BABIP troubles, neither of which recommend him very well at all: one or more important skills has permanently regressed due to age; he remains injured, perhaps chronically so, impacting one of those “important skills.” In the bad-luck scenario, Pujols is an easy trade for candidate. In the other scenarios, he may well be someone you should be shipping off your team…or maybe still trading for, if the price and your expectations are low enough.

Let’s take a look at some of Pujols’ batted ball data, and see how this is happening.

 

GB/FB

LD%

GB%

FB%

IFFB%

HR/FB

2014

1.14

15.9

44.9

39.3

20.2

17.9

Career

1.02

18.9

41.0

40.1

13.1

18.7

 Once again, we’ve got a seriously mixed bag here. I’ve bolded the three most interesting numbers. The first is his line drive percentage—it’s way down from his career numbers—so that’s actually pretty easy to see as the cause of his BABIP troubles…but it leaves the answer unknown: is it down due to skill diminution or bad luck? Where have those line drives been going?

Straight up in the air it turns out: his popups (IFFB’s) are far above his career norms, and even far above his more recent, less illustrious years. So that’ll kill your BABIP right there, hitting a bunch of popups instead of liners. I’ve always heard that popups are just a hair off of flyballs, so maybe the increased infield flies are the result of Pujols trying for more power on every swing…just a guess, so don’t bank on that one. It is worth noting, though, that his previous highest IFFB rates came much earlier in his career, in higher-power years.

The last number to stand out significantly is that HR/FB rate that’s actually pretty close to his career norm. That’s a big deal because this rate is by far the highest that he’s posted as an Angel. If he has changed his approach to get more power, it’s working. 

In our comment debate, Tom mentioned that Pujols’ flyball distance is about ten feet less than his career norm. I assume that rate is counting infield flies among the flyballs—so I think we’ve found our culprit for the statistical oddity of shorter flies and more homers at the same time. All those popups. We may be back to the drawing board if the flyball distance doesn’t count IFFB’s though. I honestly couldn’t find that information, so if you know, I’ll be happy to be shown the light, either way. 

Pujols has been hot and cold this season: he was a fantasy monster to start the season, putting up huge numbers in March/April, and he’s cooled a fair bit since then. In particular, Pujols’ strikeout rate shot up and his homers went way down. It’s too early to say if the strikeouts are a one-month aberration or a trend. Nine homers in a month, however, is probably just something to be happy about and not expect every time out. Most of his other indicators were pretty similar, however, including his BABIP: .237 in March/April and .241 in May. (Things aren’t off to such a good start in June, either, but we’ll let that go for now).

The elephant in the room is still that BABIP, with it’s thinly veiled suggestion of debilitating injury. Pujols certainly doesn’t look so great running, and his defence isn’t exactly what it used to be, but he’s played in 61 of the Angels’ 62 games, 47 of them at first base. It’s entirely possible that his foot is still bothering him…but less possible to prove. As far as placing odds on his health for the rest of the season…well, I wish I could, because I’d be a lot better at fantasy baseball if I had that kind of clairvoyance.

Pujols has had one killer month and one less-than-awesome month, and—by the looks of it—he’s done a bit of self-reinvention. If he doesn’t still have the skills to be baseball’s best all-around hitter, he’s concentrating on power, even at the cost of more whiffs, more popups, and a lower batting average. The results are there in the home runs, and with a good lineup around him, you can expect them to be there in RBI and Runs Scored as well. 

After taking another look at Pujols, I feel less confident that he’ll be doing much to drag his average up into levels that help you out. I do suspect that he’s lost something when it comes to his hit tool. That said, I also suspect that he’s run into some good, old-fashioned small sample luck: a .226 BABIP is really low, and I think it will go up a bit, brining his .245 average in to a more palatable level. 

I also think his power is pretty real: the homers are serious, and they’re not just the most important part left in his game, they’re also the most important fantasy category. Now, before you have me down as predicting that he'll keep up with his early homer pace and have 45 homers under his belt by the season's end, I'll admit that his HR/FB rate has probably also gotten some small sample luck--just the good kind. 

But even if Pujols only manages five homers per month for the rest of the season (his low end this year), he'll still end up with about 35 bombs--that's pretty good. I honestly wouldn't be shocked if it were even a little better than that. Given the leaguewide diminishing levels of power, getting a serious homer source should be a high priority for just about everybody. Pujols may have just one thing left, but he’s got the one thing we all need the most. That, combined with getting a good deal based on his recent slumping, seems to make him a strong trade for candidate. I’d pull the trigger on a Pujols deal. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t deal him away for the right price either….

 

 

 




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