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Call me crazy: I was wrong about Albert Pujols, and you were too

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The Machine has altered his approach, and it is better for our prospective playoff hopes than you might realize.

Toronto Blue Jays v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

Albert Pujols has made a dramatic shift in the way he approaches baseball. Most visibly, he is walking less. That is not necessarily a bad thing and not necessarily a good thing; more neutral than anything. The decrease in walk rate has tanked his on-base percentage and, consequently, his “value,” but having an Albert Pujols running the base paths is like having a giant boulder on a 0.0001 degree decline ahead of you — it’s barely moving and you can’t really push it that much faster. So what’s a Machine to do, but turn to the hyper-aggressive approach? This hyper-aggression is even more obvious from the career-high swing rate (50.1%), chase rate (38.6%), and swinging strike rate (9.2%) that he now carries.

But.

This is not another “Pujols is bad and Scioscia is bad and the Angels are bad and if you haven’t felt bad by this point then you are bad” article though. This is not a dig at one of the greatest hitters of the previous generation. This is most certainly not open hate mail or anything of that sort. This is an admission of my being wrong, my guilt, and, in a way, my impropriety. It would be foolish of me to say that he has been some god among men at the plate, just as it would be foolish to say that the contract he signed was a good one for the team and the long-term overall health of the organization. However, he has been misrepresented in 2018 and this must be addressed.

Let’s start with the Quality of Contact table.

Fangraphs

This must be prefaced by saying that you have to be careful with contact rate “grading” as they might be misconstrued. Excellent, Great, Awful, etc. can be misleading for a variety of reasons, but in general, a Soft% below 20%, a Hard% above 35% and a Medium% between 40 and 50% all are indications of a batter hitting well-struck balls.

Pujols is currently touting the following quality of contact rates per Fangraphs:

Soft: 18.2%

Medium: 40.7%

Hard: 41.1%

Even with the disclaimer, it is fairly easy to see that he is hitting the ball hard. In fact, his Hard contact rate of 41.1% is his third highest total ever for a season and is the first Hard% over 40% since he was a member of the 2010 Cardinals (considered by many to be his last truly great season). Overall, it would appear that he is making plenty of solid contact and Statcast actually backs this up and then takes it to the next level, saying that his Hard Hit % is a mighty 43.3%, the highest since his last 40 home run season (2015).

This is not the reason why I was wrong about Pujols. There is something else that has changed in such an impactful way that I had to outright tell everyone how incorrect I am.

Pujols has embraced a swing change. His stance may look exactly the same as it did when he was a 25-year old monster, and his home run pimping is still pretty much identical to that of when he was destroying baseballs in the Minute Maid Park that still had Tal’s Hill, but he has ceased swinging for the fences.

Albert’s line drive rate this season is 24.2%. This isn’t just the highest rate of his career. Only four times in his career has he ever had a LD% over 20% and this is the first time since 2008 (22.4%) His career high was 22.5% in 2003. He is lining everything. I alluded to the team’s line drive approach in early April before the fall in the standings and was impressed, but this has gone past impressive. It is late June and his LD% is in the same territory as the following players: Matt Kemp, Paul Goldschmidt, Scooter Gennett, and more. He is 33rd on the LD% leaderboards this season while his entire Angels career up til this year (2012-2017) ranks 352nd out of 377 qualified hitters. Put another way, he had the 26th worst line drive rate in baseball since he signed his mega contract up until this offseason.

Those line drives had to come from somewhere, and his ground ball rate has dropped like a rock tied to a bigger rock. The 38.1% GB% he now has is the lowest since, you guessed it: 2010. The biggest criticism of Pujols over the years has always been his propensity for grounding into double plays, but his 8 doesn’t even lead this Angels team this year. That distinction belongs to Ian Kinsler, who proudly boasts the team lead in something. In fact, there are 25 hitters in all of baseball with more GIDPs than the all-time leader Albert Pujols, and he only has half of the number that the leaders carry (16).

And he still has an above average fly ball rate!

So he’s hitting harder and he’s hitting at the best launch angle he’s carried since the beginning of the Statcast era (14.8 degrees). So why is his slash line so poor? It’s exactly the reason that the rest of the team minus the Godfish is. Bad luck, poor speed, and the aforementioned dropoff in walks.

Shifting over to Statcast, Albert Pujols’ weighted on base average (wOBA) of .299 is 47 points below the expected (xwOBA) .346. His expected SLG of .494 and expected batting average of .285 may partially be a consequence of his painfully bottom-of-the-barrel speed. He turns a few triples into doubles and the latter into singles, but with the 10th highest average exit velocity in the MLB, he is hitting the ball with the best of them. And Fangraphs’ Quality of Contact stats supports this:

Importantly, these stats are based on the type of batted ball. So there are hard line drives, medium line drives, soft line drives. A medium line drive might be hit at a higher speed than a hard hit fly ball.

This implies that with both a sky-high line drive rate and hard hit rate, he is putting up some outlier exit velocity numbers. Yet he has a .267 BABIP. All things considered, that sounds pretty unlucky.

A few other peripheral areas he has improved upon or maintained well:

  • His Pull% is the lowest it’s been in 5 years
  • His Infield Hit% is the highest it’s been since he was a Cardinal (thanks, healthy feet)
  • His slash with RISP is .309/.367/.420 and with men on base, it is .286/.336/.400, which explains his RBIs
  • He has +2 DRS which is something that I never thought I’d see again

This season has had some high highs and some low lows, and it has been all too easy to call out Pujols as the center of the Angels’ problems. You look at his wRC+ and see a 94, his average and see a .254, his slugging percentage and see a .421, and it is understandable that you avoid the underlying numbers for fear that they represent numbers trending downward at such an exponential rate that you might lose your lunch. Trust me, I get it.

It’s just not the truth though. If anything, he has more promising or as promising peripherals as he has had at any other point in his Angels career. We shouldn’t be groaning when he comes up to bat, but rather, cheering for the great things he has in store for the 2018 Angels ballclub.