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A closer look at Pujols' strikeouts

While there is still some debate about whether Albert Pujols is human or not, there’s no doubt that he is one of the greatest offensive players in major-league history. One statistic we can use to compare players equally across different eras and leagues is adjusted OPS, or OPS+, which is OPS adjusted for the park and the league in which the player played (100 is average). Pujols has a career OPS+ of 172, which puts him in a tie for the sixth-best mark of all-time. The players ahead of him – oh, just Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Barry Bonds, Lou Gehrig and Rogers Hornsby.

Highest OPS+
MLB History, Min. 3,000 PA

This season, Pujols is once again dominating the Senior Circuit, batting .327 with seven home runs. But there is one area where is being very un-Pujolsian: he is whiffing a lot more than he ever has in his career.

He has struck out in 15.1% of his plate appearances, which would be the highest strikeout rate of his career and much higher than the 9.1% mark he posted last year. He can’t blame it on typical early-season struggles either – last year through 26 games he had stuck out only 7.1% of the time (seven strikeouts in 113 plate appearances). Not surprisingly, his swing-and-miss percentage has also increased from 14% last year to 19% this season. So why is Pujols swinging through more pitches this year than he ever has?

The first thing to note is that he’s swinging at more pitches than last year, 45% compared to 40%. But much of the increase in his swing percentage has come on pitches in the strike zone, where he is swinging at 71% of the pitches vs 66% last year.

Albert Pujols Miss Pct
Last 2 Seasons

Normally, you’d think that would be a good thing for Pujols – swing at more pitches in the zone and he should crush those hittable offerings. But that hasn’t been the case this year...he’s missing nearly twice as many pitches in the zone this year compared to last year, with a swing-and-miss percentage of 11.4% in 2010 compared to 5.8% in 2009.

Pujols Miss Pct
Pitches in Zone, Last 2 Seasons

Using Inside Edge, we can look closer into what’s going on with those pitches in the zone that seem to be giving Albert some trouble this year. First, he is seeing a lot more curves and sliders – 34% compared to 29% last year. And he’s also missing a lot more of them in the zone than last year. In 2009, he swung-and-missed on only 10% of breaking pitches in the zone, but this year that has increased to 25%.

Pujols Miss Pct
Piches in Zone, Last 2 Season

What about the location of those pitches in the zone? Pitchers are throwing more pitches away to him, from 48% in 2009 to 51% this year, and his miss percentage on pitches on the outer third of the zone has nearly doubled from 7% to 13%. But the biggest increase in his whiff rate has come on inside pitches. This year he has swung-and-missed on 13% of them located in the strike zone, after missing just 3% of the time last season.

So what does this all mean? The Bad News: Pujols has now struck out in four straight games – the last time he had a longer streak was 2007, when he had two five-game streaks with a strikeout. That was the “worst season” of his career, when he had a career-low 32 HR and 103 RBI. The Good News: See the first paragraph. Albert Pujols is one of the greatest offensive players of all-time.

Pujols and the Cardinals take center stage tonight on Wednesday Night Baseball as they take on the Phillies at 7 ET on ESPN in a battle of two of the top teams in the National League.