One of the more common pieces of advice you read about drafting in the first round of a fantasy baseball league is that you want to play it safe. “You can’t win it in the first round, but you could lose it”, they say. And Albert Pujols was the epitome of safety. From his rookie 2001 season through 2011, he was a near lock for a .300+ average, 100+ runs batted in and 35+ home runs. That is a long period of sustained elite performance. You pretty much knew what you were getting and what you were getting was a top of the line fantasy player. But oh has it gone downhill fast.
While we would have liked to believe that Pujols would continue to defy the effects of aging, that no longer seems to be the case. Pujols just completed his age 33 season, which isn’t that old, but is clearly a number that sits on the wrong side of the bell curve. Since this here site is called FanGraphs, let’s visualize his decline in graphical format through several different lenses.
Talk about ominous trends! So, we learn here that Albert Pujols is walking less frequently, striking out more often, enjoying fewer hits on balls in play, hitting for less power, and ultimately being less productive at the plate. Let’s look at one last graph that paints another scary picture.
Oy vey. Unlike the previous graphs that went back to 2008, this one begins much earlier in Pujols’ career with the 2004 season, his fourth big league campaign. This trend is quite troubling as well, as Pujols has been swinging at more and more pitches outside the strike zone as he ages. However, a quick look at the league averages tells us that the baseball universe has done the very same thing. So it might be more useful to look at how his O-Swing% has compared to the league by just taking the difference between the two over that same time period.
This looks a bit better, but still shows the same worrisome trend. During his peak years, Pujols swung at fewer pitches outside the strike zone than the league average, but in 2011, that skill evaporated and he suddenly swung at more pitches outside the zone than the league average. This finding might help to explain why his BABIP has been in freefall, since his batted ball mix has remained fairly stable.
Pujols’ averaged batted ball distance dipped below 290 feet for the first time in 2012, when it sat at just 281 feet. That loss of distance validated his HR/FB rate drop, though his ISO barely declined. This year though, his distance actually rebounded a bit, but to just 287 feet, which ranks as his second worst distance. His HR/FB rate fell further though, while his ISO plunged below .200 for the first time.
Admittedly, it is a bit unfair to call out Pujols for his decline. His peak was so high, which made it that much harder to remain atop the mountain. But the decline has been swift and although he remained an above average hitter through 2012, he was surprisingly just below the league average wOBA for a first baseman this season.
It would be easy to blame injuries as Pujols has always played through aches and pains, having recorded at least 634 plate appearances every single season until this just completed one. But this year, a foot injury limited him to just 443 plate appearances, while he dealt with knee issues stemming from offseason surgery. That foot probably affected his performance in 2012 as well. It seems likely that injuries have cut into his production, but age also must be taking its toll.
If he were on the right side of 30, one might be more confident that a rebound is in the cards given a full offseason of rest. Unfortunately, he is heading into his age 34 season and it’s difficult to gauge how much of a rebound one should expect. While I wouldn’t expect his performance to continue on that downward slope, it would be silly to project anything better than his 2012 line.