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Hard knocks: Results betray Pujols' contact
By David Adler
On Opening Day, Albert Pujols squared up his first ball of the 2017 season. Off the bat at 104.6 mph, launched at a 21-degree angle -- a barrel, by Statcast™'s measurement -- it had an 82 percent chance of going for a hit. But deep in Oakland Coliseum's expansive center field, Rajai Davis had no problem tracking it down.
Little changed in the following days. Through five games, Pujols was 1-for-20. He had four batted balls with exit velocities of 100 mph or higher; all had gone for outs. For reference, since Statcast™ started tracking exit velocity in 2015, the overall Major League batting average on 100-mph batted balls is .625.
Pujols did break out with five hits over the weekend, including his first home run and a two-out game-tying single in the Angels' wild seven-run ninth-inning rally on Sunday. He followed that with another two-out game-tying hit in the ninth inning on Tuesday. Still, the shadow lingers: Pujols has now hit 10 balls at 100-plus mph, which only 17 others have done this season. Of those 10, he has just three hits.
This is not new. In recent seasons, as Pujols ages, he's had increasingly less to show for his hard-hit balls, which he continues to accumulate even after 17 years of ironman play and the accompanying wear and tear on the lower half of his body. He still has his power -- Pujols hit 72 home runs from 2015-16, with his 84 barreled balls ranking 23rd in the Majors -- and he still doesn't strike out much. But his slash line over the past two seasons was .256/.315/.469, nowhere near what he posted in his prime.
When Pujols has gone through cold streaks during the past few years, he and manager Mike Scioscia have often maintained that he has hit the ball better than the results, the box scores, have shown. (Last May, for example, Scioscia told reporters of a slumping Pujols, "You guys are misreading this if you don't think he's hitting the ball much better than his numbers show.") There is a disconnect, or so it goes, between Pujols' talent in hitting and the outcomes he's produced.
Now, Statcast™ shows this to be true. Isolating Pujols' underlying contact quality for 2016, Statcast™ can generate an expected batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS. Based on his combinations of exit velocity and launch angle, those estimates far exceed what Pujols' numbers actually turned out to be.
Last season, Pujols hit .268/.323/.457. Statcast™ estimated his slash line at .298/.351/.544. That's 30 points of batting average, 28 points of on-base percentage and 87 points of slugging missing from the back of his baseball card.
Pujols' 2016 OPS was .780, ranking 86th of the qualified Major League hitters. His Statcast-estimated OPS was .894, the 18th-highest expected OPS in baseball. The gap between Pujols' expected and actual OPS was 114 points, the third-largest difference among qualified hitters, with only Kendrys Morales and Miguel Cabrera having larger deficits.
An exit velocity of 95 mph is a good general approximation for a "hard-hit" ball. Pujols had 228 batted balls above that mark a year ago, the fifth most in the Majors. He batted .476 on those balls, which might seem like a high average -- except, of the 187 hitters who had at least 100 balls with 95-plus-mph exit velocities, it ranked 176th. MLB as a whole batted .538.
The point of looking at Pujols' expected numbers in comparison to his actual ones is not to say that he will start producing again at the level he did with St. Louis. There are good reasons that account for at least a chunk of the gap. Pujols' slow baserunning is one; his ground balls into the shift are another. Even though Pujols hit 228 balls at least 95 mph, for example, 102 of them were on the ground. It's hard to get those grounders through an overloaded infield, and Pujols is unlikely to leg out many hits with his lack of speed.
What the quality of his contact shows, though, and what is so impressive about Pujols is how skilled of a hitter he remains.
David Adler is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.