When I was a young reporter, a veteran baseball writer gave me some advice I haven’t forgotten. He said that one of the things he despised was when somebody wrote that a player “ended a slump” when he got a hit. For instance: “Buddy Bell ended a three-week slump when he singled up the middle and drove in two runs to lead Cleveland to a 6-4 victory.”
The writer said: “It’s just one hit. If he was two for his previous 31, he’s now only three for his previous 32. That’s still lousy.”
I bring this up because the theme today seems to be that Albert Pujols ended his slump yesterday by finally hitting first first home run for the Angels. It may be that the home run will spur Pujols to return to his machine-like ways. It also may be that Pujols was always going to return to his machine-like ways and that the small-sample-size concerns of the first month were misguided. Bill James has Pujols finishing .312 with 34 homers, and Bill tends to be the most level-headed guy in the room.
That said, it always struck me that the problem with Albert Pujols’ start was not the home run drought. Yes, that was interesting and baffling and the easiest thing to talk about. But if Pujols was hitting .274/.364/.456 with no homers, despite all those numbers being way, way down from his career totals, I don’t think it would have mattered much. You could have said: OK the home runs will come and then he’ll be back to normal. Pujols has had home run droughts before.
The problem is Pujols has never, ever gone a month where he looked so hopeless at the plate. Forget the lack of homers. He’s had more than 100 plate appearances, and he’s hitting .196/.237/.295. He has not had more strikeouts than walks in a season since he was a rookie — this year he has 16 strikeouts and only six walks, two of those intentional. He’s swinging out of the zone more often and putting those balls in play more often — this tends to be a bad, bad combination. Pitchers are changing speeds fearlessly against him now and, until he starts crushing those pitches, they will keep on feeding him change ups and curveballs and sliders that break and move out of the zone. So far it doesn’t really matter because Pujols isn’t hitting the fastball yet either.
Even Sunday, when Pujols hit the home run on an 84-mph slider that hung just a bit, he only went one for four, he struck out on an at-bat where he faced six fastballs and in his last at-bat, the one after the homer, he flew out to right on a fastball.
So, yes, the home run was nice. But I don’t see how anyone can say the slump is over and only good things are ahead. Maybe we should wait for a day when Pujols gets five at-bats, crushes three balls hard and walks twice. My baseball writer friend would say, even then, you could not call the slump over. But, it would be a nice start.