April ends Monday. Nearly one full month of baseball has gone by. Albert Pujols is still looking for his first home run.
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“I don’t try to hit home runs,” he told me in a Saturday morning conversation at Progressive Field. “I know I can hit home runs. Whenever they come, they’re going to come. I’m trying to have good, quality at-bats.
“I’ll leave you guys (to) play the little game about how many at-bats I have without hitting a home run. It’s part of the game. I don’t care about that. It’s a long season. At the end, my numbers are going to be there and nobody’s going to talk about what happened in April.”
Pujols is partially right. If his numbers are there at the end of the season — and I’ll wager that he finishes at 80 to 85 percent of his 2011 performance — then we won’t fixate on his historically poor April. But it’s becoming harder and harder to dismiss his career-long season-opening homer drought as a statistical anomaly, because of two concurrent trends:
1 … Pujols is not driving in runs. He has four RBI and a meager .295 slugging percentage.
2 … The Angels are not winning games. They are 7-15, last in the American League West. In a year that began with World Series expectations, they are tied for the worst 22-game start in franchise history.
It will surprise no one if Pujols silences critics with a breathtaking power display, as he did with those three home runs in Game 3 of last year’s World Series. Derek Jeter and David Ortiz, starring for their respective teams, had their career obituaries written in prior Aprils. Yet, there is nothing in Pujols’ current performance to suggest such a breakthrough is imminent.
Days removed from the longest hitless stretch of his career — 21 at-bats — Pujols remains mired in one of the most expensive slumps (dollars per out) in baseball history. He went 0-for-4 in Sunday’s 4-0 loss to the Cleveland Indians: groundout, groundout, groundout, strikeout. He declined comment afterward, saying he needed time to get ready for the team’s flight home to Anaheim. (I suspect they would have held the plane for him.)
The reality: Pujols’ at-bats are getting worse, not better. One scout said his timing looks off. Another evaluator saw him exhibit visual signs of frustration Sunday. Pujols’ performance is raising doubt about whether he has developed an effective rapport with longtime Angels hitting coach Mickey Hatcher.
In his assessment of Pujols on Sunday, manager Mike Scioscia said, “Well, he hit the ball hard to short … Um … Not having seen him on a daily basis — this is the first time we’ve really seen him on a daily basis. Obviously, in spring training he was swinging better. You know, obviously, he’s not locked in right now. We’re just going off some video and things we’ve seen in the past to see what he does and what he’s trying to do … His at-bats today, I think, uh … just … he expanded a couple times. He was on some pitches and just kept missing them. He hit one ball hard to shortstop.”
Doesn’t sound like they’re close to a solution, does it?
Scioscia pointed out that Pujols had a “real slow start” in St. Louis last season. But not this slow. On May 23 last year, the day his previous career-long homer drought ended, his batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage were .268, .340 and .421, respectively.
After Sunday, the same numbers were .216, .295 and .266.
Why is this happening? The easy answer is that Pujols is pressing (to justify the $240 million contract) or uncomfortable (after leaving St. Louis and the National League for the first time in his big-league career). But Pujols does not want to admit to either.
When I asked Pujols if he’s comfortable with the Angels, he replied, “Why not? This is my family. These guys are my family. I feel pretty comfortable. It didn’t take that long, going to spring training and being there.”
It’s true: Pujols batted .383 with seven home runs this spring, prompting many observers (including me) to predict the Angels would win the World Series. But they have played tight since leaving the pressure-free atmosphere of the Cactus League. In the games that count, they have fared worse than the rebuilding Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs.
“I’m not pressing, dude,” Pujols told me. “It’s baseball. If we would be 15-3, then nobody would be talking about pressing. When a team is struggling, everybody’s looking for excuses.
“If people want to look for excuses, you can say whatever you want. You can write whatever you want. I couldn’t care less what you write. To me, it’s (important) to stay focused. It’s a long season. Concentrate on that and not on the things people are saying.”
Pujols insisted to me that he feels no more pressure in 2012 than he did in 2011. (“Same game, man,” he said.) And yet there’s no denying that his life and career are profoundly different than they were six months ago, when he celebrated the second world championship in 11 seasons with the Cardinals.
For one thing, Scioscia is the first man other than Tony La Russa to manage Pujols in the major leagues. La Russa has retired as a manager and works for the commissioner’s office now, but Pujols said the two speak frequently. “I talk to Tony all the time,” Pujols said. “He’s like a father to me. That relationship we have is more important than the accomplishments we have in the game together. We talk every three, four days. He calls or sends me a text.”
Personally, Pujols has spent more time apart from his family than usual. St. Louis has been his year-round home for several years, and his children are still in school there. Pujols said he and his wife, Deidre, haven’t decided yet whether their kids will attend school in Missouri or California after this year. Pujols has yet to purchase a home in California.
Pujols acknowledged that the change in his family’s routine has been difficult at times. “They’re getting used to it,” he said. “They’re traveling. I’ve got my kids here (on the Cleveland trip). I get to see my family every two weeks. It is tough, but this is the business. That’s the way it goes.”
As I spoke with Pujols, I began to wonder if he’s missing aspects of playing for the Cardinals. When I asked if that is the case, he said, “You know what? I’ve moved on past that. I don’t think that’s a question I even want to answer. I’m in Anaheim. My focus is to try to do whatever it takes to help this organization win.”
One aspect of Pujols’ comfort in St. Louis was his familiarity with the NL itself. While movement of players between the leagues is more common than ever, Pujols had the advantage of playing against many of the same teams, with many of the same pitching staffs, in many of the same ballparks, for more than a decade. Now, suddenly, so much is new.
Angels reliever Jason Isringhausen, who played with Pujols in St. Louis from 2002 through 2008, said he has noticed pitchers attacking Pujols down and in this season. “I know he wants to do better than what he’s doing,” Isringhausen said. “Sometimes, I think Albert presses a little too much. But that’s him. He’s going to be in the cage for hours and hours, working on it. He’s going to pop out of it. I know how much this means to him. He’s one of the best at making adjustments. I don’t worry about him. He’s going to be OK.”
Scioscia noted over the weekend that Pujols has at times seemed “passive” in his approach. The numbers bear that out. Last year, Pujols put the first pitch in play roughly 9.7 percent of the time. This season, the figure has dropped to 5.7 percent. Pujols wasn’t aggressive Sunday, even with a starter (Derek Lowe) against whom he had excellent prior career numbers (10-for-28, .357). He took the first pitch in all four of his plate appearances during the defeat.
On one level, Pujols’ pitch-taking makes sense: He wants to size up the repertoire of unfamiliar opponents. But the strategy has backfired. Pujols is seeing an abundance of 0-1 counts. Later in at-bats, he’s been chasing pitches outside the strike zone. Pujols, one of history’s finest sluggers, is exhibiting the telltale symptoms of a lost hitter: He’s taking the strikes and swinging at balls.
Statistically, this is one of the most shocking power outages in baseball history. Since 1974, only five men began a season with 400 or more career home runs and then failed to homer in their first 80 at-bats. According to STATS LLC, they are: Willie McCovey (1974), Carl Yastrzemski (1981), Eddie Murray (1996), Ken Griffey Jr. (2010) and Pujols (2012).
Of that esteemed group, not one averaged more than 16 home runs per season for the remainder of their careers. Griffey, then 40, retired that year without hitting a homer. In a possible Pujols parallel, the ’74 season was McCovey’s first as a Padre after the Giants dealt him to San Diego. He went on to hit 108 home runs over the next seven seasons.
Pujols says he’s confident we won’t be talking about this in October. His tone during Saturday’s interview was at times defiant and perturbed, but generally matter-of-fact. Outwardly, at least, he’s not rattled.
“I don’t see him panicking, so why should we?” said veteran reliever LaTroy Hawkins, as he prepared to work out in his team-issued apparel before Saturday’s game. “But if it’s this time next month and we’re still playing like this? Then the panic button will be the size of your head and the color of my shorts.”