Albert Pujols is not a machine, and he’s proving it by looking so very human

For 11 years, teammates and opposing players marveled at Albert Pujols’ approach and plate discipline. Yes, he had amazing strength and bat speed and all of that. But what really made him special was his ability to control an at-bat the moment he stepped into the batter’s box. He did not swing at bad pitches. He did not lunge for pitches outside the strike zone. He was in control from start to finish.

That’s what makes his incredible start with the Angels so tough to comprehend. He was nicknamed The Machine because he was so consistent, so productive. It’s not that he has gone 88 at-bats without a home run that’s so startling. It’s that he looks vulnerable at the plate. If you watched him during those 11 seasons with the Cardinals, you just didn’t believe that was possible. He dictated at-bats. Everything revolved around him.

His numbers dropped off last season. He also started slowly. But those could be explained away by him recovering from a wrist injury. If there were days he didn’t look like himself, it’s because he wasn’t. He still ended up with nice numbers and finished fifth in NL MVP balloting.

This season, everything has come undone. It had to start with the pressure he felt to justify that huge contract. Money impacts virtually every player one way or another. Either the player is working like crazy to earn a contract, or he’s upset he hasn’t gotten the contract he feels he deserves. Or, in Albert’s case, he’s attempting to justify the money.

From the outside, this seems silly. Albert got the money he got because he was the best player in the game. The Angels didn’t give him a pile of money because they thought he might do something more than he’d always done. They simply wanted the same guy who led the Cardinals to two championships. If this kind of thing sounds simple from the outside, it’s not.

Players are human. They work like crazy to earn a contract, and then for whatever reason, they feel the need to justify the contract. Albert is swinging at pitches, especially curveballs from right-handed pitchers, he never touched before. His OBP was down for three straight years, and now he’s way down. His walks were way down last year, too, so maybe he was feeling some of the pressure then. When he turned down a big offer from the Cardinals, he cranked up the pressure on himself.

Now he’s not drawing walks. He’s not controlling at-bats. And he’s not hitting with power. I’ve watched him for so long that I believe he’s going to break out some night soon and then go on a tear when he hits home run after home run in a short period of time. Scouts are now speculating about the heavy damp air in Anaheim, how it might curtail his home run totals. That’s just silly talk. Until Albert gets Albert straightened out, that stuff doesn’t matter.

Once he starts to hit, he’ll hit regardless of where he’s playing. I’ve seen him hit some of the most monstrous home runs ever. I’ve seen him carry teams and break hearts. Only Barry Bonds did the things Albert did. I refuse to believe that player is gone for good.

2 Comments

Having been a Cardinal fan for 44 years, I’ve seen some very good players come through St. Louis, with Albert possibly being the best. That said, cracks have appeared over the last year or so he was with St. Louis…as Richard’s column points out. I also fail to believe that the player I admired for 11 seasons is gone for good, I just think we’re going to see that player less often. That’s why the Cardinal organization wasn’t going to mortgage the future of the franchise to give Pujols the length of contract and amount of money that Anaheim did.

I think Pujols was already starting to erode in St. Louis–home runs not as frequent, walks not as frequent also (he is 32, remember). So that downward trend continues this year. That’s one part.

Now he’s in a new league. He doesn’t know the pitchers at all. All the accumulated knowledge from his St. Louis years is gone. It will take time (several months, if not longer) for him to learn the American League pitchers. That’s the second part.

Add to that the desire on his part to justify the massive contract makes him try too hard. That’s the third part. I’m afraid Pujols is in for a long, trying year.

I wonder how Arte Moreno is feeling about that 10-year contract. I’d love to be a fly on the wall, and hear what he really thinks–not the chloroformed pap he’ll put out through his PR people.

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