There are so many things that are hard to see in sports, at least for me, at least in real time. Balks.* Hockey goals. Key lead blocks. And so on. This is why replays matter so much … I want to see what REALLY happened. I want to see why LeBron got so open underneath, what Jay Cutler was looking at when he threw the ball right into the linebacker’s hands, how much did Luke Hochevar’s slider really hang?
*There is a movement, apparently, to make the fake-throw-to-third, throw-to-first play in baseball a balk. I am totally, 100% behind this movement. For one, it would be nice for there to be a balk that I could actually recognize without the help of twenty-two slow motion replays (“OH, he hitched his belt or something!”). For another, I have no idea why it’s NOT a balk, and I’ve never known. There are, best I can tell, at least fifteen different ways a balk can be called, and the purpose of all these balk violations s so pitchers are not allowed to unfairly entrap or trick base runners. That fake third-to-first play is clearly in that category and should have been called a balk from the start.
The fake throw to second should also be a balk, I think, but mainly because I’m tired of fans in every stadium screaming “balk!” whenever it happens.
One thing I never see — ever, no how matter how many replays they show — is what the analysts talk about when they break down a golfer’s swing with the Konika-Travolta-Biz-Hub-Scientology-Royale-With-Cheese camera. It’s always “look at the downward plane of his and watch the hand position when he and notice how he maintains his body pose to create torque that torques when he torques and see the subtle movement of his left wrist as he …” No idea what they’re talking about. Was watching the Players Championship over the weekend and Johnny Miller — when he wasn’t talking about how every player chokes always — was explaining the left arm of some golfer, and all the other analysts were going “Yes, oh yes, I see that, oh isn’t that fascinating.” And I saw nothing.
So that’s why it was absolutely shocking when I watched Albert Pujols play Sunday night.
Even to a dunderhead like me, it’s clear: His swing has absolutely fallen apart.
You might note that Pujols has now played six games since hitting the home run that supposedly broke him out of his slump, and he’s hitting .192/.222/.192 over those six games. His five hits — as you can see by the slugging percentage — were all singles. In fact, the home run he hit is the only extra-base hit he’s had all month so far. We are now up to 145 plate appearances, and he’s hitting .195 and slugging .275. As a few people have pointed out — I believe it was first on the Baseball Prospectus Podcast — Josh Hamilton could go zero for his next 271, and still have a higher slugging percentage than Pujols has right now.
The common thought — one announcer Terry Francona hammered again and again during last night’s game — is that Pujols will snap out of it, and when he does snap out of it, well, look out, giant balls of hail will fall from the sky, the stock market will rise to new heights, people will agree on gay marriage and so on. I don’t doubt this, I really don’t. Unless Pujols is seriously injured and isn’t telling anyone, it seems impossible to believe that the best player in baseball would sign a big deal in a new league and suddenly be the worst player in baseball. Everyone around the game seems sure that Pujols will soon be destroying pitchers again and smashing baseballs all over the park, and it seems crazy to think otherwise.
But, there is something that seemed absolutely clear to me while watching the game … something I wish Francona (who I really enjoy listening to) would have been willing to talk more about. At a different point in the game, Francona broke down Vernon Wells swing and showed in a clear way how his hip opens up too much when he swings, which smothers his power and seems to knock him a bit off-balance. It was interesting and explains pretty well why Vernon Wells has been hitting .221 and obeeing .250 since the start of last season.
However, when it came to Pujols swing, Francona was not nearly as pointed. He did do a little breakdown — and did talk about how his hands were dead as they came through the zone during one at-bat — but he generally was saying that Pujols swing looked pretty good, and he was really close, and he it was only a matter of time. And Francona knows a billion times more about this than I do, so I am sheepish in what I’m about to say.
But I’ll say it anyway. I think he’s completely wrong. Pujols swing looks nothing like it did. The wide stance has narrowed significantly. His legs used to be tree trunks; a hurricane could not move this guy. Not anymore. He looks wobbly at the plate. His swing used to be the most balanced thing of beauty imaginable — everything stayed perfectly still as the bat would rush through the zone with fury — now he’s lunging at the ball, stepping at the ball, his head seems to be moving all over the place.
I don’t have the technological understanding of hitting to explain the differences, but even someone like me can see, in caveman talk, “That swing different from that swing.” I’ve had people explain to me Tiger Woods’ swing changes a hundred times, and sometimes I think I might see the difference — sort of like how sometimes I think I might see the pirate ship in the Magic Eye picture — but generally I don’t see it. But with Pujols you can’t miss it. The swing is completely different — so much so that it feels virtually unrecognizable to me. If i saw the shadow of Albert Pujols’ new swing, I would not know it was Pujols.
Maybe this is age. Maybe this is the story of a man trying to adjust to the worst slump of his life. Maybe this is the heavy pressure of a 10-year, billion-jillion-shmillion dollar contract. I don’t know. And maybe it’s just temporary, maybe his next game, the stance will widen again, the balance will return, the head will get still, Pujols will look like Pujols again. How could you bet against that?
I’m not betting against anything. I’m just saying if you watched Albert Pujols on May 13, 2012 you would not expect that guy to hit .328, hit 40 home runs, win MVP awards. You would wonder what the heck that guy was doing hitting third in the lineup. There is a lot of talk about what’s going on in Pujols’ head, what pressure he must feel, what panic has to be exploding in the Angels’ front office (no matter what they say). That’s all well and good … but Pujols better clean up that swing first, if his body will let him. For the little I can see, Pujols isn’t doing much with that swing.