As David Wiers mentioned about a week ago, Albert Pujols is done for the year, and his value in 2014 will likely be all over the board. In re-draft leagues, you have the pleasure of writing Pujols off for the next couple months and not thinking about him again until pre-season rankings come out.
However, dynasty leagues such as ottoneu will require a different look at the ailing (and maybe aging?) first basemen. In some leagues, Pujols has been (or will be) cut, while in others owners are trying to decide what to do. The big question is, “Have we seen the last of MVP Albert Pujols, or is there reason to expect a bounce back next season?”
Those looking for a reason to believe won’t have to look far – for many who peruse this fair site, the first place to look for a struggling hitter (or a scorching one) is at BABIP, and Pujols does not disappoint. His .258 BABIP this year is not only a career low, it is a full .048 below his career numbers. To get him back up to his career .306 BABIP, we would need to add 16 more hits. Even if those were all singles, he would have a .299/.365/.478 line. His current OPS (.767) ranks 17th among 1B this year. His adjusted OPS (.844) would rank 6th. Not exactly Pujolsian in the traditional sense, but not bad at all.
That said, his BABIP has been declining the last few years and has not crossed .300 since 2008, so maybe a better adjustment would be to bring him up above .290. We also know that not all of the additional hits will be singles. So let’s add 11 hits, two of them doubles (maintaining roughly his current ratio of doubles to non-HR-hits). That takes his line to .286/.354/.471. Not as good, but still not half bad, and still good for the 7th best OPS among 1B.
There is more to the story though. Between 2005 and 2010, Pujols never posted a walk rate below 13.9% and only once posted a K% over 10%. The last three years, he has seen his K% climb from 8.9% to 11.3% and then 12.4%, while his BB% has plummeted down to 9.0% (which actually represents a bounce back from 7.8% last year).
Why is that happening? One possibility is that it is related to a decreasing contact percentage (down to 82.9% this year, after staying over 85% (and hovering near 90%) from 2004-2011. At the same time, he has seen a jump in his SwStr%, up to 7.6%. Before last year, he had gone eight seasons without posting a SwStr% over 6% – the last two years have been 7% or higher. the same time-frame has also seen his ability to hit the fastball drop quite a bit, along with his ability to hit the change. He is actually performing better against the slider, but perhaps what we are seeing here is a drop in bat speed, with an inability to catch up to the fastball. To try to keep up, maybe he is cheating to get a quick start and getting out in front of changes and curves (which are also seeing a pretty bad tumble in terms of his pitch values).
All of this would add up to more strike outs and fewer walks, as we have seen, but it should also lead to less solid contact (or at least less regularly solid contact). We are not actually seeing this in his LD/GB/FB splits – he is hitting a few more FB and a few fewer GB than he has over his career, but it is nothing to write home about. In fact, for a guy like Pujols, the additional fly balls should be a bonus, as they should lead to more HR.
But he is not hitting those fly balls hard at all. Pujols has actually added five feet of distance to his home runs and fly balls this year, but moving up to almost 287 feet is not an impressive feat for a guy who sat comfortably above 300 feet for a while. From 2008-2010, his average fly ball and home run distance was 309.9 ft; from 2011-2013, he was exactly 20 ft shorter, at 289.9. At the same time, he went from an average batted ball angle of -4.5 to an average angle of -1.8. Neither of these is exactly a pull happy number, but he is definitely not pulling the ball as much as he used to.
All of this suggests to me that as Pujols prepares for his 34th birthday, to be followed shortly by his 14th Opening Day, we have seen the last of vintage Prince Albert, but not the end of Albert as a viable fantasy player.
In ottoneu, for example, where as many as 24 1B can be used between 1B and util, his numbers should still be useful, but only barely so. And of course there is the possibility that a healthy Pujols gets back any lost bat speed and starts pounding the ball again, so there is some upside to pay for (although I would not pay much for it).
Assuming his BABIP comes back up a bit (after all, his batted ball mix has not changed a ton) and sits around .280, his OPS would sit around .803, which would slot him between Adrian Gonzalez and Adam Dunn in terms of 1B OPS, good for 10th. If we assume his upside his more like .850 (6th among 1B) and his downside is a fall as low as .740 (tied with Chris Carter for 24th among 1B), his ottoneu value could range anywhere from $1-$3 (for near replacement level production) to $40-$45 (for top five 1B production). Neither of those outcomes are likely, and I’d be gambling that he falls a bit above the middle of that range, around roughly $30.
If I can grab him today for $25 or less, and do so without disrupting my team or cutting a player I don’t want to cut, I would do it, but I am not paying much more than that, and I am not paying $25 ($27 for 2014) happily.
If I currently own Pujols for $50+, I am happy to cut him loose. Let someone else deal with him for a minimum bid of $25. If I own him at anything less than that but more than $30, I am holding him the rest of the season and letting him go ASAP in the off-season. Anything less than $30, I am reserving judgement until after the season and perhaps as late as spring, when we hopefully no more about his health.
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