After last season, conversations surrounding first baseman Albert Pujols of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim revolved around how upside down Anaheim was on his contract, how quickly he would be relegated to designated-hitter duties only, and how the St. Louis Cardinals seemingly dodged a bullet by not signing Pujols to a new contract after the 2011 season.
In just 86 games so far this season, Pujols has surpassed his 2013 home run total by nine, and is just two long balls short of matching his 159-game total in 2014. If he keeps up his current pace through 159 games again this season, he would hit 48 home runs, his highest total since 2006. His current home run per fly ball rate is nearly seven percent higher than his previous season’s best in an Angels uniform, and would be his best since 2006 as well. He is also on pace to be awarded his highest number of bases on balls in a season since joining the Angels.
Those numbers are the reason why the conversation has shifted on Pujols. The discussion now remarks upon Pujols being the front-runner for the American League Comeback Player of the Year award. Why does it look like his fourth season with the Halos might be his best since coming to California? Several factors.
An obvious factor is his health. The 35-year-old hasn’t seen the disabled list since 2013, and is showing the benefits of a full season and a half of remaining injury-free. There’s more to this revival of Pujols’ power and prestige than peaceful palpations, however.
In pinpointing an explanation for something, it’s often helpful to identify unlikely sources of cause. It’s not that Pujols is being more productive across the board. If he maintains his current .253 batting average, it would be the lowest for a season in his career. He is on pace to average just as many if not more strikeouts than he has in his previous three seasons with the Angels.
His batting average on balls in play is currently .215, .43 less than his previous career low for a season. While he has improved his walks, the strikeouts have kept his on-base percentage a low .320 so far, which would also be the lowest of his career if he ends this season there. Pujols has not discovered the fountain of youth and revived his 2006 self.
For Pujols in 2015, it’s all about the long ball and the resulting effects. His slugging percentage is currently .527, which would be his highest since 2011 and coming to Anaheim. He could also produce his highest number of runs batted in as an Angel this season.
Naturally, a lot of the increased productivity is due to the power surge already discussed. His .274 isolated power statistic to this point in the season would be his highest since 2010 if it continues. The return of Pujols’ power is also behind the increase in four-ball counts, as Pujols’ 0.76 walk to strikeout ratio would be his highest since coming to Anaheim. The fear and dread that Pujols once regularly produced in the hearts of opponents and fans of the opposition is returning with Pujols’ ability to make balls exit the park.
There’s no better proof of the respect returning than the pitch selection of the opposing batteries he has faced. So far this season, exactly 55 percent of the pitches Pujols has seen have been fastballs. That would match the lowest figure since 2010 for Pujols. The average velocity on the fastballs that Pujols has seen is 92.2 miles per hour, again, a low point since 2011.
Additionally, the amount of change-ups that Pujols has seen to this point in 2015 (11.4 percent of pitches) would be the highest number in a season for his career. Simply put, opposing pitchers are being careful when delivering to Pujols once again.
The psychology fueled by Pujols’ prowess at landing the ball in the seats this season is due to his adjusted approach at the plate. While his strikeout rate has remained constant, he is showing improved pitch recognition. His rate of swings at pitches outside the strike zone is lower than the same statistic in his previous three seasons, and conversely his rate of swings inside the strike zone is at its highest since 2004.
The improved recognition has lead to better opportunities. His overall rate of contact, 86.5 percent, is at its highest since 2011. Additionally, Pujols has had the most strikes called against him since 2011, as only 6.2 percent of the strikes against him to this point in 2015 have been swinging strikes. That tells us that Pujols is letting borderline pitches which he can’t do damage with go by, and if he strikes out, so be it.
Pujols is on pace to arguably have his best season in an Angels uniform, because of his healthy status and adjustments that he has made to his approach at the plate. He has discovered a way to do more with less at his age, further boosting his résumé for a place in Cooperstown someday.