How the shift has ruined Albert Pujols

MLB

ANAHEIM, Calif. — One line drive in particular still torments Albert Pujols. It was the first inning of a Friday evening game on May 4, and Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Mike Leake hung a two-strike slider over the plate. Pujols gave it his best swing, unleashing a 105 mph line drive toward shallow left field. Jean Segura, a shortstop, had positioned himself about 10 feet behind the infield dirt and caught it easily. He turned what would have been Pujols’ 3,000th career hit into his 95th out in 126 at-bats this season.

Pujols tossed his helmet and stared in disbelief. His discontent would linger.

“I’m one of the victims,” Pujols says now. “Just like so many others.”

The recent proliferation of defensive shifts has made it exceedingly difficult for power hitters to turn batted balls into hits, prompting an infatuation with launch angles and breeding a widespread acceptance of strikeouts. Few have been victimized more than Pujols, the aging slugger who still makes contact but no longer runs well.

From 2015 to 2018, Pujols has accumulated a whopping 403 hard-hit outs, putting balls in play that travel at least 95 mph. Nobody has more. His average exit velocity is 90.3 mph, ranked fourth among those with at least 1,700 batted balls during that stretch, according to Statcast. His batting average on balls in play is .245, tied for the lowest in the majors among qualified hitters during that time.

Pujols shrugs.

“What can you do, bro?”

This is not to say that Pujols remains an elite hitter. He walks too little, chases too often, and his bat speed probably isn’t what it used to be. But the modern game is especially unforgiving to older hitters, and it has intensified the decline of arguably the greatest first baseman in baseball history.

Since joining the Los Angeles Angels on a 10-year, $240 million contract in the winter of 2011, Pujols’ career batting average has dropped an average of nearly four points per season. It was .328 when he left St. Louis, and it’s .303 now — his seventh summer in Southern California.

Teams have shifted on Pujols 38 percent of the time since 2016, the second most among right-handed hitters with at least 1,000 plate appearances. Against the shift, he is batting just .219, 26 points below the league average.

Many of the batted balls that were hits during the majority of his career — for most of his life — are now landing in opposing gloves, and Pujols has slowly progressed toward reluctant acceptance. He doesn’t like the idea of changing his swing path to adopt more launch angle. He also doesn’t believe changing his approach “to hit a weak ground ball to second base” would solve anything.

“I just had to learn how to live with it,” he says. “It sometimes bothers me, but at the end of the day, hey, hang with it. It’s something everybody goes through.”

Pujols doesn’t begrudge teams for maximizing a competitive advantage. Spray charts display hitter tendencies over large sample sizes and opposing defenses are foolish not to position themselves accordingly. Pujols understands that. He would be in favor of Major League Baseball eliminating shifts altogether, adding that fans would “see a lot of offense back again like it was before.” But he is admittedly biased.

The only change he adamantly vouches for is a reasonable one: Second basemen who are positioned up the middle should not be allowed to disrupt a hitter’s line of vision and keep them from identifying a pitcher’s release point. It’s happening far too often.

“It doesn’t matter if he’s standing over there,” Pujols says. “Just don’t stay in the path where the release of a pitcher is.”

Thinking about that makes Pujols think about all the line drives he has lost up the middle — guaranteed hits in the baseball game he once knew, and he is asked what his batting average would look like if second basemen played their position traditionally and didn’t shade toward center field.

“Between .290 and .300, for sure,” Pujols says, who instead sports a .254/.290/.428 slash line “Look at the balls that I’m hitting up the middle, especially this year. Out of those 30 or 40 or 50 balls, give me 25 hits. Add those 25 hits to my .250 batting average, I’d be hitting like .290.”

Those numbers seem a bit inflated. Spray charts from Baseball Savant show Pujols making 16 outs on line drives toward the middle of the field this season. Of those 16, only five appear to have been clear singles under a traditional alignment.

Regardless, the most important number surrounding Pujols is this one: $87 million.

That is the amount of dollars owed to Pujols over the final three years of his contract, which lasts through 2021 and takes him all the way up to his age-41 season. His mind is set on playing through it, and he doesn’t need to re-evaluate anything this offseason.

“When that time comes, it’s not even going to wait until the offseason,” Pujols says. “If I feel it during the season, I’m gone, dude. The day that I feel like I can’t compete in this game anymore, it doesn’t matter how much money I’m going to leave on the table. I’m done, bro. I’ve been blessed.”

“But to embarrass yourself, and not be able to compete — dude, that’s not me. I have accomplished so many things in this game that I could never even imagine. That drive of playing every day is still with me. I think it’s always going to be with me. What’s going to be tough, obviously, is your health.”

Pujols recalls a recent conversation with David Ortiz, an All-Star in a 2016 season that wound up being his last. Ortiz hit .315 that year, with 38 home runs and 127 RBIs. But it took him too long to recover from the toll of each day. His body no longer responded the way he needed it to, which made the thought of walking away seem easy.

Pujols insists he isn’t there yet. His lower body has been plagued by injuries, most notably plantar fasciitis. But a healthy offseason has led to 58 starts at first base — already nearly twice as many as the previous two seasons combined — and encouraging for the years ahead.

“I think next year is going to be even better,” he says, “because now I know I’m able to get back in the gym and know what I need to do to get stronger, especially in my lower half. Because that’s the first thing that goes. You talk to any of the players, your lower half is the first thing that goes as you age. And that’s the thing that you have to maintain the most. I feel like I still can do this for three more years. And maybe more, who knows?”

Pujols grins upon saying that. Every once in a while, Angels third-base coach Dino Ebel will let Pujols know where he ranks among the leaders in hard-hit outs (he’s tied for fourth with 78 this season). It keeps Pujols going, reaffirming an unrelenting belief that he can continue to survive in a game that is moving past him at a rapid rate. But he doesn’t need the numbers.

“I feel it,” Pujols says. “I know it.”

Pujols already has reached 3,000 hits and surpassed 600 homers. By driving in 27 more runs, he’ll reach 2,000 RBIs, a trio of accomplishments reached only by Hank Aaron and Alex Rodriguez.

“I heard somebody a couple years ago saying that RBIs are overrated,” Pujols says. “I’m like, ‘Are you freaking kidding me?’ How do you freaking win games? I mean, it’s scoring runs, driving guys in. You’re going to tell me that RBIs are overrated? Are you, really?”

The devaluation of RBIs rankles him, as does the commonality of strikeouts.

“I can’t believe guys, right now in this era in the game, and even the media, are OK with it, thinking that it’s OK striking out,” Pujols says, who has never struck out 100 times in a single season. “I’ll never be OK with that.”

Pujols is one of only eight players who have been active over the past 18 seasons, which means that few have experienced so much change in this sport. If everything aligns, he will play in three more of them, finishing out a contract that faced intense scrutiny from the onset.

Asked if he is concerned about the direction of his beloved game, Pujols lets out a hearty laugh.

“I’m just glad that I only have three more years left,” Pujols says. “I’m just happy for that. In three more years, it’ll be more crazy. Trust me. I’ll be watching and you might see me coming around, and I’ll be laughing at things.”

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