Albert Pujols and the cut fastball

Rick Yeatts

While Albert Pujols is having a better season thus far than in any of his last three, there's been one trend (outside of his age factor) that may have contributed to his slumping numbers.

Sometimes I feel like Albert Pujols' cut man. I'm in his corner gently massaging the bruises, trying to reduce the swelling. I've got that weird metal contraption that helps with lacerations. While I work on his physical ailments, I also try to build him back up mentally with positive words. If you've read my stuff in the past, you might come away with a similar impression, and perhaps it's true. But at least I'm using numbers to back my Pujols-apologist writing. This is not necessarily one of those articles, though. I do think Pujols still has a lot left in his tank, and I think he can surprise us. However, I recognize that age and injuries have finally caught up with the future Hall of Famer.

But the age explanation is such an easy out. While it's surely the root cause of Pujols' struggles, there are factors more objective that we can examine. The most interesting factor could be opposing pitchers' pitch selection over the last four years. Specifically, how the use of the cut fastball may be contributing to Pujols' struggles.

In 2011, Pujols' final year with the St. Louis Cardinals, he suffered his first seemingly significant injury. He fractured his left wrist. However, something strange happened. He came back in two weeks. The Machine was indeed proving to be very machine-like. But being in the lineup is vastly different from actually returning to productive form. It's easy to say the injury was the beginning of the end for Pujols. It's a simple narrative to suggest that his broken wrist led to everything we've seen since. And what we've seen since has been almost continuous decline (until this year, that is).

The funny thing about assumptions is they're often wrong. In the case of Pujols' decline and his broken wrist, productivity actually was NOT an issue after returning from the disabled list. Quite the contrary, actually. Take a look at Pujols' numbers before and after the injury in 2011.

Before the injury (March 31st through June 19th):

  • 136 wRC+, .368 wOBA, 17 home runs, .253 BABIP, 318 at-bats

After his return (July 6th through September 28th):

  • 157 wRC+, .399 wOBA, 20 home runs, .300 BABIP, 333 at-bats

Pujols got better after returning from his fractured wrist. If the Los Angeles Angels were paying attention, they likely had little concern about his ability to continue putting up Hall of Fame-worthy numbers. He struggled (as much as you can classify a 136 wRC+ struggling) in the first part of 2011, but with 47 points added to his BABIP, Pujols put up numbers more in line with his career averages.

So he signed a massive deal doomed for failure in December of 2011. From that point on, there was very little Pujols could do to possibly live up to the contract. He had been worth an average of 6.76 fWAR per season up to that point. There was no chance he would be able to maintain that for the rest of his career, but the Angels gave him a contract suggesting he could. And as expected, he has not come close to justifying the money the Angels gave.

This season, though, Pujols is staging a comeback of sorts. Masked by Mike Trout's awesome season, Pujols has turned things around a bit. There are a few things we can look at here in terms of Pujols' struggle. We can examine his career averages, his numbers up through when he began struggling (2010), his numbers during his struggle years (2011-2014), and his numbers this season. By looking at all the pieces, perhaps we can come up with a Pujols narrative better than "age has finally caught up to him." Even further, perhaps we can find something that may help him prolong his productivity.

First, let's take a look at this season. By Pujols' standards, it's still a far cry from great. He's put up a 124 wRC+ this year, driven largely by his power numbers coming back. After a significant dip in his ISO in 2013, Pujols is back to .212 on the season. When viewed through the lens of his career averages, Pujols' 123 wRC+ and .212 ISO is nothing to get excited about. But when viewed as a possible recovery, there is reason to be excited. Especially if you're the Angels. His wRC+ ranks him 42nd in all of baseball. His .212 ISO puts him at 29th, tied with All-Star Yasiel Puig. And small sample sizes aside, there's reason to think Pujols will continue to improve this year.

From June 17th through July 11th, Pujols has seen his BABIP creep back up to .301 (his career average is .304). However, his power is still fluctuating. Pujols' ISO in that time is just .159. Despite the lack of power over the last (almost) month, Pujols has managed a wRC+ of 139. He's still not at Trout's level - or even his own level from just a few years ago - but Pujols is trending up in terms of value. If we can track reasons, outside of injury, for his downturn over the last three seasons, perhaps we can determine what he's changed this year to see some of his success return.

There are so many routes we can take in studying Pujols' decline, beginning with the 2011 season, but so many of them can be related back to injury. So instead, I thought a review of how pitchers have approached Pujols over the years may yield something less controlled by injuries, and more descriptive in figuring his decline. Let's look at the pitches thrown to Pujols on average throughout his career and compare any changes in the opposing pitchers' pitch-selection over the last four seasons.

Season Team FB% SL% CT% CB% CH% SF% KN% XX%
2002 Cardinals 59.4% (90.2) 16.4% (82.7) 13.1% (76.4) 9.8% (80.2) 1.3% (83.2) 11.2%
2003 Cardinals 62.2% (91.1) 15.9% (82.9) 12.3% (76.2) 7.6% (80.9) 1.4% (84.7) 0.6% (67.5) 10.8%
2004 Cardinals 58.2% (90.6) 18.0% (83.4) 0.6% (85.2) 10.5% (76.4) 10.3% (81.7) 2.2% (83.0) 0.2% (68.5) 5.8%
2005 Cardinals 57.6% (90.1) 17.3% (82.6) 3.7% (86.2) 8.9% (75.7) 11.0% (81.3) 1.2% (84.2) 0.4% (69.0) 4.9%
2006 Cardinals 62.4% (90.7) 15.5% (83.2) 3.3% (86.2) 10.2% (75.1) 7.6% (80.5) 1.1% (85.9) 4.6%
2007 Cardinals 61.2% (89.9) 15.9% (82.7) 2.3% (85.1) 9.2% (74.5) 10.8% (80.3) 0.6% (83.3) 3.6%
2008 Cardinals 55.6% (90.9) 18.3% (83.0) 3.5% (86.3) 9.5% (75.4) 11.1% (81.6) 2.0% (84.1) 6.0%
2009 Cardinals 52.5% (92.0) 20.0% (84.0) 4.8% (87.1) 9.9% (76.0) 9.8% (82.9) 2.5% (85.1) 0.4% (71.0) 6.4%
2010 Cardinals 52.4% (91.4) 20.2% (83.9) 4.0% (88.6) 10.4% (75.4) 10.6% (82.6) 2.0% (86.1) 0.4% (76.4) 5.4%
2011 Cardinals 55.8% (91.7) 17.5% (84.0) 4.9% (88.5) 10.5% (76.5) 9.8% (82.5) 1.5% (84.2) 2.4%
2012 Angels 56.6% (92.3) 18.0% (84.0) 4.2% (87.9) 9.9% (77.3) 9.6% (82.9) 1.7% (86.0) 2.1%
2013 Angels 55.0% (92.2) 18.7% (83.8) 7.2% (87.9) 9.1% (77.9) 7.9% (82.7) 2.0% (83.0) 2.0%
2014 Angels 56.4% (91.9) 16.5% (84.0) 7.3% (88.3) 10.2% (78.6) 7.5% (84.3) 1.2% (84.6) 0.8% (74.9) 2.4%
Total - - - 57.3% (91.1) 17.6% (83.4) 3.3% (87.4) 10.3% (76.2) 9.7% (81.9) 1.6% (84.5) 0.2% (72.0) 5.4%

In 2011, we see the first of an obvious shift that has taken place in how pitchers approach Pujols over the last four seasons. Over his career, Pujols has seen a cutter just 3.3% of the time. However, in 2011, he saw that pitch 4.9% of the time. That was the highest rate of his career, and it has only gone up since. This season, Pujols is seeing the cutter at an all-time high rate of 7.3%. Outside of the cutter, he's only seen a change in pitch selection with the change up. He's seeing the change approximately 2% less over the last two seasons. This is probably because of the increased use of the cutter as a means to get him out.

But does the increased use of the cutter against Pujols actually mean it's a pitch that has been successful against him? Is it actually a contributing factor in his struggles? In short: maybe. The cutter has not resulted in a higher percentage of outs on balls in play. In fact, of the last four years, Pujols has actually put the cutter in play almost a frequently as he has over his entire career and has collected a hit on the pitch 2% more often than he has in the past. But there are other areas where the cutter may be having an impact.

Pujols' career event chart on the cutter*:

Chart_medium

*Note: Pitchf/x data is only available from 2006 forward, and Baseball Savant has data from 2008 forward. Also, 2014 numbers are through 07/11/14

Pujols' 2011-2014 event chart on the cutter:

Chart-2_medium

As you can see, most of the numbers over the "struggle years" are either in line or are not showing differences large enough to suggest an issue. However, Pujols is taking the cutter for a ball 3.6% less frequently from 2011-2014. This, in and of itself, may not be part of the problem. However, if he is generating more strikes (as you can see he is fouling off a higher percentage of these pitches - more strikes, less balls) that lead to outs, the cutter may actually be an effective tool against him. We've already established that Pujols is collecting hits on the cutter nearly 2% more frequently now than when compared with his career average. However, he is also taking strikes (called, swinging, and foul balls) nearly 2% more frequently.

At first glance, you may think the extra hits outweigh the uptick in strikes and downtick in balls. But do those hits provide the same value? Or are they simply coming as a result of luck and thus the extra strikes are putting Pujols in a more difficult hitting situation? Fortunately, some of these questions can be answered with some additional Pitchf/x analysis.

Brooks Baseball provides further details on Pujols' productivity by pitch. This data is slightly limited as we can only look at the 2007 forward. However, it should give us a good feel for how Pujols handled certain pitches in the past, compared with how he handles them now and over the last four seasons. First, let's look at the productive years - and pay special close attention to the cutter since that's the focus of this article.

2007-2010

Pitch Type Count AB K BB HBP 1B 2B 3B HR BAA SLG ISO BABIP
Fourseam 2907 670 39 73 8 122 59 1 68 .373 .769 .396 .323
Sinker 1631 369 30 54 4 73 29 1 25 .347 .634 .287 .328
Change 770 154 8 17 1 35 5 1 10 .331 .571 .240 .302
Slider 1317 286 59 38 3 47 12 16 .262 .472 .210 .280
Curve 922 163 41 20 2 25 12 2 .239 .350 .110 .308
Cutter 556 129 8 15 1 25 13 8 .357 .643 .287 .336
Split 264 58 15 6 1 5 6 2 .224 .431 .207 .268
Knuckler 21 5 1 1 .200 .800 .600 .000
Screwball 3 1 .000 .000 .000 .000
Slow Curve 4 .000 .000 .000 .000

Pujols absolutely crushed the cutter from 2007 to 2010. He posted the second highest ISO of any qualified pitch on the cutter at .287. He only smashed the fourseam for more power (which makes sense). Interestingly, Pujols saw a BABIP on the cutter during this time of .336. That was higher than any other pitch during the same period. Now, on to the struggle years.

2011-2014

Pitch Type Count AB K BB HBP 1B 2B 3B HR BAA SLG ISO BABIP
Fourseam 2669 658 53 53 6 105 51 50 .313 .619 .306 .281
Sinker 1840 477 37 33 6 89 30 19 .289 .472 .182 .283
Change 675 181 20 6 2 22 17 8 .260 .486 .227 .255
Slider 1346 328 65 18 3 58 12 13 .253 .409 .156 .280
Curve 857 151 40 10 3 23 5 6 .225 .378 .152 .267
Cutter 582 161 15 8 30 8 5 .267 .410 .143 .270
Split 178 47 9 3 7 2 4 .277 .575 .298 .265
Knuckler 12 3 .000 .000 .000 .000
Slow Curve 6 1 1 1.000 4.000 3.000 .000

We can immediately see a significant change in Pujols' productivity on all pitches, but specifically the cutter. His ISO on the cutter had the largest drop-off of any pitch when looking at his production from 2006-2010 and comparing it with 2011-2014.

Screen_shot_2014-07-13_at_2.15.59_pm_medium

ISO isn't the only problem, though. We know that BABIP is largely based on luck, but there's always an expected level of production for which we can base analysis. With Pujols, he had four years (2007-2010) in which his BABIP on the cutter was .336. Let's take a look at how his BABIP stacks up in his last four years.

Screen_shot_2014-07-13_at_2.21.56_pm_medium

You can see each pitch type, and you can see Pujols' results over two different periods. I left each pitch type on the chart in order to illustrate the vast disparity between the drop-off in production on the cutter verse the drop-off on any other pitch. Had we simply stopped after looking at the number from 2011-2014 in a cursory manner, it would have been simple to say his numbers were down across the board because of age and injury. However, the cutter has proven to be Pujols' biggest problem.

We'll take a look at one more table to drive the point home.

K% Difference SLG Difference BAA Difference
Fourseam 2.23% 0.150 0.06
Sinker -0.37% 0.162 0.06
Change 5.85% 0.085 0.07
Slider -0.81% 0.063 0.01
Curve 1.34% -0.028 0.01
Cutter 3.12% 0.233 0.09
Split -6.71% -0.144 -0.05

To clarify, higher is worse. The K% is higher which makes sense naturally, but I can imagine some confusion on the others. SLG and BAA both represent the points difference from Pujols' strong years and his struggle years. So his SLG% is 23.3 points lower in the struggle years and his BAA is 9 points lower in the struggle years.

I think it's clear at this point that Pujols has struggled more over the last four years with the cutter than he has any other pitch. If we are to hypothesize that Pujols is making a recovery this year, we should give a quick look at his numbers against the cutter this year and compare them specifically against his numbers from 2011-2013 (since the assumption is 2014 is a bounce back year, I don't want to include it in the "struggle years" for this comparison) as a whole. I'll stick with an analysis of ISO and SLG since earlier I suggested Pujols' turnaround this year was largely based on power numbers.

Screen_shot_2014-07-13_at_2.56.43_pm_medium

Pujols has hit the cutter and the change with more power this year, but we already know the change is being thrown less and the cutter more - so for the sake of this analysis, I'm going to assume more weight on the cutter. Now, on to SLG.

Screen_shot_2014-07-13_at_3.00.31_pm_medium

Again, we see a significant uptick in slugging percentage on the cutter and the change-up. And again, I'm suggesting more weight be placed on the performance on the cutter since it has been thrown more while the change has been thrown less.

Pujols may or may not be making a comeback this year, but if pitchers continue to take the same approach as they have over the last three and a half years, and if Pujols continues to suddenly hit the cutter for power again, we should see more Pujolian performances in the second half of the year. It's not clear whether the increase in cutters thrown was a result of a conscious effort by pitchers or if there are simply more cutters thrown in the American League (sounds like another article!). What we can say for sure is that when Pujols began struggling, in 2011 just before his move to the Angels, through 2014, he has seen more cutters. He has struggled on those cutters for the last three years, but 2014 looks promising.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball and Baseball-Reference.

Justin Hunter is a contributing writer at Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about all things Padres at The 5.5 Hole. You can follow him on Twitter at @the5_5hole.

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