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Big League Stew

Slumpbot .200: OK Albert, we waited as long as we could …

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

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Using the best technology available to us today, SlumpBot .200 identifies a few players who are currently having a bit of trouble and then offers solutions for performance recovery. This week we focus on some players who still haven't found a cure and have been slumping from the start of the season.

Albert Pujols, St. Louis Cardinals

Data: .262/.333/.412, 9 HR, 31 RBIs, 4 SBs, 0 CS, 23 BB/22 K

Malfunction: Offense is significantly down across baseball this year: Teams are only averaging 4.13 runs a game, quite a bit less than the 4.33 runs per game that teams managed last year, even though we all unofficially agreed to call it "The Year of the Pitcher." So, in this offensive context, Albert's otherwise blah .745 OPS is good enough for an OPS+ of 109, nine percent above league average.

But while being merely above-average would be good enough for most mortals, it isn't for Phat Albert. He hasn't been below .300 this late in the season since 2007. In fact, he hasn't even spent a single day above .300. This is awfully strange territory for a man who has never finished lower than ninth in the MVP balloting. In a recent podcast, Bill James noted that Pujols so far has had a "perfect career" because he has been good every single season of his career. But could this year finally be the exception? {YSP:MORE}

Diagnosis: Pujols is usually among the league leaders in virtually every offensive category, but this year he's leading the league in just two things: games played and GIDP. He has played in all 57 Cardinal games, and started all but one (including two starts at third base). He has also grounded into 16 double plays. If Albert has an offensive weakness, it's GIDP: he averages 20 a year, and he previously led the league with 27 in 2007, his previous offensive nadir (his OPS was only .997 that year, 252 points higher than his current mark). He has 219 for his career, which is the 61st most of all time. But right now, he's on pace to blow past his previous career high of 27, and if he keeps it up, he could even challenge Jim Rice's record of 36 GIDP in 1984.

All those double plays indicate that something is going on with Albert's swing: he's hitting a lot more ground balls and a lot fewer fly balls and line drives this year. For his career, 40.9 percent of Albert's batted balls are grounders, 40.1 percent are fly balls, and 19.1 percent are line drives; this year, those numbers are 48.5 percent, 36.1 percent, and 15.3 percent. The decreased line drives go a long way towards explaining why his batting average has declined, since a far higher percentage of line drives go for base hits than groundballs or fly balls; the decreased fly balls help explain his diminished home runs. Beyond that, fewer of his homers fly balls are going over the fence: his homer per flyball rate is just 9.3 percent this year, compared to a career average of 15.5 percent. That is usually a mark of simple bad luck, as is his much-diminished BABIP, which at .254 is 58 points lower than his career average.

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Albert's greatness has been so numbingly consistent that it may sound ridiculous to nitpick the numbers. Last year, for example, he posted the lowest batting average of his career (.312) and had the second-most strikeouts of his career, most since his rookie season (76). See, it looks silly when you write the numbers out, but all the same, Albert looks like he's in the midst of a mini-decline. His strikeouts are down a bit this year, but his walks are far down, both unintentional and intentional: he's only received one intentional free pass and just 23 overall, as he's on pace for the fewest walks of his career. (The decline in intentional walks is partly thanks to the incredible year that Lance Berkman is having.) No one's afraid of the big bad Albert right now: they're challenging him with runners on base and he's obliging them by grounding into twin killings.

Reboot Directions: He could certainly use a day off now and again. In Sports Illustrated a week ago, Joe Sheehan took a look at Pujols's increased groundballs:

Mechanically, it can mean a player is getting beat with fastballs, unable to get the bat head to them... Pujols may be out of his peak, no longer the very best player in baseball and prone to longer slumps but he's still an exceptional hitter and will soon enough return to his established level.

It's hard to disagree with that. Pujols's two bad months will keep his overall season numbers lower than usual, but it's very hard to believe that he won't return to his usual luck on balls in play and home runs per fly ball. That said, it's not clear why he's hitting so many more ground balls, and a little more rest would do his body a world of good. Between Berkman and Matt Holliday, the Cardinals haven't needed much offense from Pujols, and his time would be better spent working on his swing than relearning third base.

Which other players are struggling?

Shin-Soo Choo, Cleveland Indians .246/.326/.367, 5 HR, 22 RBIs, 7 SBs, 3 CS, 21 BB/53 K
Most people don't realize just how good Choo has been for the Indians the last two years. From 2009-2010, Choo had the fourth-most fWAR of any outfielder in baseball, behind only Carl Crawford, Ben Zobrist (whose positional flexibility vastly enhanced his value), and Matt Holliday. (Per baseball-reference's rWAR, Choo had the most WAR of any outfielder in baseball.) But this year, like Pujols's Cardinals, Choo's Indians have been going great guns without much production from their star, who was arrested for a DUI at the beginning of May and who has maintained an OPS under .700 for most of the season.

So what's cuckoo with Choo? He's striking out a bit more than usual and walking a bit less than usual — his K/BB is 2.52 right now, compared to a career rate of 1.84, which indicates that his plate discipline hasn't been as strong as usual. But he's mostly getting unlucky. To this point in his career, Choo has maintained astonishingly high BABIPs — he's at .306 right now, which is above league average, but his career mark is .354. Moreover, only 6.5 percent of his fly balls are going over the fence, compared to a career average of 9 percent. His batted-ball rates are virtually unchanged from last year, when he was one of the best players in baseball, and his line drive rate is actually slightly higher than it was. That indicates that his BABIP drop is likely a fluke rather than the result of something wrong with his swing mechanics or him failing to hit the ball hard. On the other hand, his slipping plate discipline could be problematic, particularly if he starts pressing as a result of his batting struggles. For now, there doesn't appear to be anything wrong with his underlying components. It's just been a tough couple months. As long as he can steer clear of the law, he should see his results pick up as the weather gets warmer.

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Jon Lester, Boston Red Sox 7-2, 3.94 ERA, 75 1/3 IP, 4.21 FIP, 1.35 WHIP, 2.39 K/BB
Lester had a great April, but a lousy May, following a 2.52 ERA in six April starts with a 5.50 ERA in six May starts. So what's wrong, exactly? BABIP. His April BABIP was .257, while his May BABIP was a hundred points higher. He also may be a little off with his control — his K/BB has declined mostly due to an increase in his walk rate, particularly in May, but he's also leading the majors in hit batsmen with seven. (Lester tied his career high by plunking 10 last year, tied for eighth-most in the majors.) He gave up six home runs in May, and has given up 10 on the year, after allowing just 14 homers in all of 2010. Much of his struggles in May can be put down to BABIP and therefore Lady Luck, but the increases in homers, beanballs, and walks are all worth monitoring, and he'll need to make sure he can retain feel for his pitches in the sweaty months to come.

Sam Fuld, Tampa Bay Rays .229/.281/.351, 3 HR, 21 RBIs, 13 SB, 6 CS, 14 BB/26 K
Sam Fuld was a great story in the early weeks of the season, a five-foot-eight diabetic Jewish Stanford grad who interned with Stats, Inc. while he was in the minors and started the year hot as blazes, with a .350 average through April 27 as the Rays' leadoff hitter. He earned the nickname "Super Sam" and inspired the Twitter hashtag #TheLegendOfSamFuld, but, as Jonah Keri wrote for us in May, "You could fill 10,000 Russian novels with stories of baseball players who were great for one month." Since then, Fuld is batting .139 with a .144 BABIP. He's neither as good as he was in April nor as hopeless as he's looked since then. And he's played terrific defense, which has given the Rays an excuse to keep his glove in the lineup even as his bat has run cold.

The trouble is, he's just not an everyday player. While he didn't have an appreciable platoon split in the minors, he also struggled to slug .400 despite spending his offensive prime years of age 27 and 28 at Triple-A. And while he showed a good walk rate and excellent contact skills in the minors, walking more than he struck out and walking in more than 11 percent of his plate appearances, his walk rate has plummeted in the majors this year as pitchers have challenged him and exposed his lack of power. Though the Rays finally dropped him from leadoff to the bottom of the order, he's probably best suited as a fourth outfielder and defensive replacement. He's an awesome player to root for, read about, and podcast with, but he just doesn't have the bat to play every day.

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