Let me first say I thought these days were over. Long over. I thought any discussion about Albert Pujols would be limited to frustration about his contract preventing the Angels from adding players to help Mike Trout chase a ring.
However, what I found this morning pleasantly surprised me. Albert Pujols is hitting again. No, he's not The Machine in his prime, and I promise my coffee didn't include bourbon. But he's undergone some reprogramming and is suddenly much more interesting than he has been in years.
Obviously, it should be noted this analysis is based on a very, very small sample size. But as you'll see below, this isn't simply a better Statcast page, although that's nice and led me to dig deeper. Rather, Pujols is showing visual swing/hitting changes and a noticeable change in approach too.
That's a lot of red. Red is good. In fact, it's the most red we've seen on Pujols Statcast page since 2016. Currently, his 2021 xwOBA, xBA, xSLG, xISO, xOBP, averaged exit velocity, and hardhit% are the best they've been since 2016, and in many cases are dramatically better than previous seasons. He's hitting just .229/.275/.417 across 51 plate appearances, but his expected slash line is .308/.363/.521. Already, Pujols has hit more balls 105 MPH or harder, seven, than all of last season when he hit six.
Interestingly, Pujols is being much more aggressive in the batter's box. His first-pitch swing% is up from 14.1% to 21.6%, but overall, his swing% aligns with career rates. He's ambushing fastballs. All 11 of Pujols hits this season have come against heaters, which is both a good and bad thing because Pujols is whiffing at offspeed and breaking stuff at an increased rate.
However, his zone contact percentage is 96.9%, and his chase% has dropped dramatically; the issue with the slower stuff is his chase contact% has also dropped dramatically as well. If he had enough plate appearances to qualify, his Z-Contact% would rank fourth in baseball, and he's never finished a season with a better Z-Contact%. Again, I'm dissecting an extremely small sample size, but it's still noteworthy because of how bad Pujols has often been.
The visual evidence isn't hard to see either. Let's look at two swings, the first from a 2020 home run and the second from a 2021 one:
It might not appear like much, but we know in baseball sometimes a few subtle things can spark a big change. First, let's look at the stance:
You'll notice Pujols is more upright this season with a slightly changed bat angle. When Pujols was at his elite peak, he was more spread out in the batter's box and didn't need much body movement to help generate his power.
That's a pretty significant change in leg kick and body positioning. This year's version is more upright with a higher leg kick while the 2020 version is more spread out and actually sees the front foot/leg move towards the pitcher whereas the 2021 Pujols stays upright with the weight back. I think that's significant because it's allowing him to better utilize his lower half and tap into a little more athleticism in the box. But the most crucial part about the leg kick...
Pujols' leg kick is bigger and more noticeable this season, but he's getting his front foot down earlier, much earlier, this season and in a more upright position. With a front foot down earlier, it's more difficult for Pujols to be beaten by fastballs, which is showing in the numbers. In 2020, he had a .249 xBA against fastballs; this season, it's .377.
SHOULD I SPRINT TO THE 12-TEAM WAIVER WIRE FOR HIM?
Not necessarily. But when Anthony Rendon soon returns to the lineup, the Angels are going to have one of the best lineups in baseball thanks to Jared Walsh and Justin Upton carrying over 2020 gains into 2021, Shohei Ohtani being healthy and mashing, Mike Trout still being Mike Trout and David Fletcher and Jose Iglesias being high contact, solid batting average bats.
Even if Pujols hits seventh in this lineup, he could be able to feast on some RBI opportunities. He should absolutely be added in 15-team leagues, if he's available, and favorable scheduling matchups, like next week's six games at Texas and at Seattle, in 12-team leagues make him an intriguing possibility. Can the Angels stomach Pujols' horrible defense, though? So far, they are.