Albert Pujols' homerless start warrants many observations: 240 to be exact
1. This is a story about 240 things to take from Albert Pujols' terrible, horrible, no good, very bad April.
2. It was originally going to be 240 million things, but that proved too daunting. Sort of like Pujols hitting a home run.
3. That, of course, is the impetus behind this accounting, which through interviews with those who have seen him and plumbing of statistical minutiae will endeavor to figure out how the greatest hitter of his generation, probably one of the 10 best in history and the purest from the right side since Joe DiMaggio remains homerless into his second month as a Los Angeles Angel.
4-69. Before this season, Albert Pujols played 66 months (counting partial Marches with April and partial Octobers with September) in the major leagues. Never before did he finish one homerless. The closest he came was in June 2006, when he spent half the month on the disabled list and homered once. It was balanced out by that April, when Pujols hit 14 in 25 games.
70. April, actually, is quite the prolific month for Pujols. Only in August has he hit more home runs than the 78 in April throughout his 12-year career. His walk rate is best in April, too. And that brings us to our first clue, delivered by a general manager.
71. "We started seeing this last year," he said. "The plate discipline started to change. When you look at how often he walked, it really became a true indicator."
72. Following another weak 0-for-4 evening Tuesday, Pujols' slash line dipped to .208/.255/.292.
73. But at least he drove in a run, his first since April 15.
74. On a brutal swing, of course, another of dozens this season. Minnesota starter Francisco Liriano missed badly on the first three pitches. Angels manager Mike Scioscia gave Pujols the green light. He swung at ball four, a slider low and outside, and hit a near-Baltimore chop to shortstop to score a run. It was, like his other at-bats, filled with the antithesis of the Pujols we've come to know and appreciate.
75-77. Coming into this season, only three players since 1966 finished their careers with more than 1,000 walks and fewer than 700 strikeouts: Willie Randolph, Ozzie Smith and Mark Grace.
78. In his first 11 years, Albert Pujols walked 975 times and struck out 704. And his 445 home runs were 190 more than Randolph, Smith and Grace combined hit in 25,479 at-bats.
79-92. So to see the ugliness of 14 strikeouts over his first 96 at-bats …
93-96. And to see the impossibility of Pujols drawing only four unintentional walks over 23 games …
97. Well, to the executive, it's a sign of what started last year, when Pujols' walk rate dipped below 10 percent for the first time in his career. For the first time since his second season, Pujols' strikeout total nearly caught his walk total (58 to 61).
"Once that becomes inverted," the executive said, "you begin to become normal."
[Tim Brown: As slump continues, Albert Pujols sticks to his process]
98. Let's pause for a moment to appreciate how abjectly abnormal Albert Pujols has been. It's not just the fact that in the last 50 years, he's one of only eight players to walk at least 115 times and strike out 64 or fewer in one season.
99-100. It's the two World Series championships.
101-103. The three MVP awards.
104.-114. The 11 years of superhuman production, of numbers that cement him as the most surefire Hall of Famer of his generation, of greatness that places him alongside DiMaggio and Frank Robinson and Miguel Cabrera and Jimmie Foxx when looking at his most similar players by age.
115. That why what's going on now is so mystifying.
116. Remember, Pujols waded into a similar pool of grief last season when his struggles extended out two months. While the what's-wrong-with-Albert questions reached their nadir at the end of May, it's worth noting that his slash line on May 2 last year – .241/.310/.438 – still was prompting worry about whether Pujols was indeed on the downside of his career.
117-128. And it made the fact that he got not one and not two but three 10-year offers as a free agent this offseason so curious. The St. Louis Cardinals going a decade? Sure. Pujols went with the Cardinals like Bryce Harper with dreadful haircuts. He was supposed to be a Cardinal for life. Anything else felt wrong.
129. So when the Los Angeles Angels dropped a godfather offer on him and promised not just $240 million for the remainder of his career but the audience that L.A. offers, it was, and may forever remain, shocking. Here was a man who relished the centered life the Midwest afforded him, able to be the city's No. 1 attraction without all of terrible trappings sports superstardom can foist upon those blessed with such talent, and he was leaving it behind for $30 million and the pulpit the big city affords.
130. And the Angels, so entranced by the television money they could get simply by Pujols wearing their uniform, were wedding – or damning – themselves to a man on the downside of his career. For all of his incredible qualities and unmatched want to be the best, Pujols could not be the first person in sports history to win the unwinnable fight against age.
131-162. He is 32 now. Probably. Until Pujols retires, questions about his age will swirl like a tornado on the prairie, and when he falls into a deep slump like this, the deepest of his career, skeptics will wonder whether he's actually 34 or 35 or even older, throwing out that possibility to explain what just as well could happen to a 32-year-old: that his body, his swing, his affect, everything about him, is indeed beginning to change.
163-202. Forty players this season are 32 or older and have logged at least 50 plate appearances. Among them, Pujols ranks 30th, sandwiched between Placido Polanco and Miguel Olivo, behind Jamey Carroll, Willie Bloomquist and Juan Uribe.
204. Here's the thing: For all of the ugliness April provided, those who are paid to watch players, interpret what they see and file reports aren't giving up on Pujols. Far from it. He has done this too long. He has been too good. Nobody just loses it, certainly not one of the best ever to play the game. This, they say, is nothing more than an aberration.
205. Scout No. 1: "He'll be fine."
206. Scout No. 2: "I'm pretty sure he'll be fine. He looked good in spring training. Have not heard of any injury."
207. Scout No. 3: "He was great in spring training. This is crazy. New league, home, end of career, last team?"
208. Scout No. 4: "Hearing from a couple of guys that he is close to breaking out."
209. They're not worried that Pujols is late on fastballs. Or that he's lunging at off-speed pitches. Or that after so many years of getting fooled on pitches and still barreling them, he's morphed into David Eckstein for the first of 60 months he'll play in an Angels uniform.
210. Sure, it's disconcerting when he takes an innocuous revelation from Angels hitting coach Mickey Hatcher – that Pujols stood in front of his teammates and promised to be better – and acts like Hatcher was revealing state secrets. Pujols' interpretation of clubhouse code always has been warped, a product of his relationship with Tony La Russa, yes, but also one of how he views the game: as something sacrosanct, to which only he and those with him may be privy. Pujols answers to no one, and he never will, not even when he's turning in at-bats like his first Tuesday night.
211. He took the first pitch from Liriano, a 93-mph fastball, for a strike.
212. He fouled back a slider, way out in front.
213. He took a pair of balls, one of which catcher Ryan Doumit wanted in the dirt, pointing his glove there for emphasis, believing Pujols' equilibrium is so out of whack that he might actually chase it.
214. He destroyed an inside fastball down the left-field line. It bounced just foul and continued so hard it went through the ball boy's 5-hole. A glimmer, if nothing else.
[Big League Stew: Bryce Harper has nothing to show for two fantastic throws]
215. He lifted a 2-2 slider to medium left field, early again, April bleeding into May.
216. He hobbled to first base.
217. Sweat gleamed on his face as he removed his batting helmet.
218. The fat gold chain around neck looked like a shackle.
219. In his final at-bat, Pujols took a first-pitch strike from journeyman reliever Jeff Gray, swung through another pitch and ended his evening with a check-swing groundout to third base.
220. Pujols took all four first pitches Tuesday. He now has swung at less than 10 percent of the first pitches he has seen. And while that is somewhat in line with where he has been in recent years – in 2007 and 2010, he offered at just 12 percent of first pitches – it is well below the 28 percent major-league average and his 20 percent career average. Whether it speaks to familiarizing himself to a new league – unlikely, seeing as he has hit .348 in interleague play – or some other reticence, even the scouts who have seen him admit Pujols has been a different type of hitter this season, one with the confidence to fall behind in a count but lacking the wherewithal to extract himself from it.
221. Said one GM: "[He's] pressing a bit."
222. Of course he's pressing. The contract. The new league. The perfectionism. The desire to do something, anything. Albert Pujols is a mental leviathan. He truly believes he is better than every other baseball player in the world. Only an android could shrug off the weight of such a confluence. Pujols has spent thousands of hours in batting cages perfecting his beautiful swing – a swing one scout said "is different, a little out of whack. His hands aren't confident." At the moment, Pujols is the swordsmith who spent years fashioning the perfect blade only to find it cuts jagged.
223. Some of that has manifested itself in poor luck. Pujols is hitting line drives at a 24 percent rate.
224. They're just going into gloves and at ball boys.
225. And that lineup surrounding him. Goodness. Even though it seemed like there were years it was Pujols and the misfits, the Cardinals trotted out juggernaut lineups almost annually during his 11 seasons. Three times, including last year, St. Louis led the National League in runs. Two more the Cardinals finished second. And there was a third, a fourth, three sixths and an 11th in 2007, the year after Pujols' first championship.
226-232. The Angels, meanwhile, have trotted out with some regularity these seven players to surround Pujols: Howie Kendrick (.289 OBP, .760 OPS), Maicer Izturis (.375, .675), Vernon Wells (.247, .669), Erick Aybar (.250, .512), Peter Bourjos (.231, .481), Alberto Callaspo (.204, .374) and the since-departed Bobby Abreu (.259, .593).
233. They've been there to witness the pageantry that accompanied Pujols' debut. Before their opener, the Angels ran a video canonizing Pujols: "Angel fans both young and old will forever remember the December day when they heard the promise of lifelong memories to come."
234. Because Pujols was a "consummate player."
235. Who would "lift his teammates to the highest level of their sport."
236. On that night, at 6:46 p.m. PT, Pujols' name was announced over the public-address system to ravenous cheers. He high-fived Scioscia, Aybar and Kendrick before doffing his cap to those who came just to see him – to see the start of history.
237-239. They didn't get it that night nor any of those soon thereafter. The closest they came was April 19, when Pujols socked three doubles against the Oakland Athletics. His slugging percentage leapt nearly 100 points, and his OPS jumped to a respectable, if not Pujolsian, .759. And that was going to be the turning point, because it had to be. It just had to.
240. Only it wasn't. Pujols wouldn't corral another extra-base hit for 11 days, and it was a weak double at that. Still no homers. Dee Gordon hit one Tuesday. Dee Gordon weighs 98 pounds in uniform, and he's got more homers than Pujols. It's the best player of his generation and Michael Bourn and Daniel Murphy and a list of others whose names never should stand alongside Pujols' still stuck on zero. It's all backward, all wrong and all very real.
They still cheered him Tuesday night at Angels Stadium. The home team won 4-0 and gained a game on the first-place Texas Rangers. The Angels are only eight back now. They've got time. The season isn't even 15 percent over, and reality in baseball doesn't show itself until June or July, and by then, all they can do is hope their $240 million man, the foundation upon which they've built themselves and will for 9 5/6 more years, has forgotten his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad April and remembered who he is.
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