Albert Pujols is off to a pretty poor start (.148/.179/.148 in seven games as of this writing) and people are obviously worried about him. To be fair, he hasn’t been awful since signing with the Angels in 2012. But he’s definitely not been anywhere near as good as he was with the Cardinals. He hit 40 home runs last year and remained an above average offensive player by weighted runs created plus (wRC+). However, it was still one of his worst seasons as a major leaguer. And when you ignore the gaudy home run numbers and start looking at yearly metrics, some pretty nasty trends start to become clear. In fact, they’re clear enough that Angels fans should be very worried about their aging slugger.
Pujols played with the Cardinals for eleven seasons from 2001 through 2011. In that time, he was worth an impressive 81.4 fWAR. That total alone probably qualifies him for the Hall of Fame. It would place him 34th all-time and sandwich him between Joe DiMaggio (83.1 fWAR) and Roberto Clemente (80.6 fWAR). During this stretch with the Cardinals, he hit .328/.420/.617. These days, that’s probably an MVP single season stat line and Pujols averaged that over 11 years! It’s no wonder the Angels gave him $240 million over 10 years. But they probably should have known better, and I have to believe they strongly regret the decision now.
It’s not that Pujols has been a bad player for them, it’s that he’s only been about average. Counting the four seasons leading up to this year, he’s provided them with 9.0 fWAR, an average of just 2.25 fWAR a season. It should be noted that he’s dealt with injuries that have limited his playing time, including only a 99 game stint in 2013. But considering he’s battled injuries in multiple seasons with the Angels and is now 36 years old, it might fair to consider those injuries a part of who he is now. In this four year stretch with the Angels, Pujols has hit .266/.326/.478 (122 wRC+). Again, that’s not bad, but it’s nowhere near what he did with the Cardinals and it’s not worth an average of $24 million per season over the life of the contract. His on-base percentage with the Angels is lower than his batting average was with the Cards, for example.
Just for comparison, here are those career numbers with the Cards and Angels side by side:
This gives us a pretty clear picture of the results of Albert Pujols’ declining performance. Now let’s take a look at some of the factors that are contributing to that decline.
One of the first things you might notice from that table is the juxtaposition of strikeout and walk rates. When he was with the Cardinals, Albert Pujols walked more than he struck out. Since joining the Angels, the opposite is true. Not only that, but his walk rate has been nearly halved and his strikeout rate is slightly higher. This might relate to his swinging strike rate (SwStr%). Except for his first two seasons with the Cards, his SwStr% never rose above 5.9%. However, since joining the Angels, he’s logged the following rates in successive seasons: 7.0 %, 7.9%, 6.9%, and 6.0%. His command of the the strike zone has deteriorated and it’s showing up in both his BB% and K%.
On a related note, Pujols has also become a more aggressive hitter. His swing percentages (percentage of times he swung at a pitch, also known as Swing%) with the Cardinals hovered around the low 40’s and never went above 44.7% (which came in his last season with them). But with the Angels, his rates have jumped several percentage points: 47.1%, 46.8%, 47.8%, 46.2%. He’s swinging at more pitches inside (Z-Swing%) and outside the zone (O-Swing%). His Z-Swing% has gone from the low 60’s to the mid-60’s, and his O-Swing% has gone from the mid-20’s to the low 30’s.
His SwStr%, Swing%, Z-Swing%, and O-Swing% are all trending in the wrong direction. And when I look at all those things together, it paints the picture of a hitter that’s become less disciplined. And as I’ve already noted, it’s showing up in his BB% and K%. And of course, it’s also showing up in his triple slash line, which is dramatically less than what it was with the Cardinals.
Pujols’ power numbers have declined over the years as well. That’s almost certainly due to age-related decline, but we’re talking about a guy taking a step down from elite power. And as he exhibited last year, he’s still capable of hitting an impressive number of home runs. So while it’s a concern, it’s not nearly as frightening as his eroding plate discipline.
The Angels are locked into Albert Pujols’ contract for another six seasons (and another $165 million), which takes them into his age 41 season. With as much plate discipline decline as we’re already seeing, I can’t imagine how bad Pujols might look by the end of that contract. But it could get ugly fast, and I don’t think there’s much question that his contract is one of the worst in baseball history.
Statistic courtesy of FanGraphs