Albert Pujols is the No. 3 hitter on the best team in baseball. No, it's not 2004 again: Pujols is 34 years old, not 24. His slugging percentage won't crack .500 for the second straight season, the only such years of his career. He leads the league in grounding into double plays. But make no mistake: Pujols has returned from a foot injury that plagued him last year to become a run producer again.
Pujols is the rare hitter in today's game who can hit in the middle of the order with power and not strike out often. With 24 homers, 83 RBI and 55 strikeouts, Pujols is one decent month away from joining Babe Ruth as the only hitters in history with 12 seasons with 30 homers and 100 RBI and fewer than 100 strikeouts. (Pujols is tied with Barry Bonds and Jimmie Foxx with 11 such seasons.)
He is healthy again and playing for a first-place team, the Los Angeles Angels. So I was a bit taken aback by his answer when I asked him about Derek Jeter heading into retirement this year. Pujols made no guarantee that he would play through the end of his own contract, which has seven more years remaining at between $24 million and $30 million per year.
"When people ask me, 'When do you think you're going to be done?' I say, 'I don't know,'" Pujols said. "It's hard. I know I have several more years after this on my contract. I think the moment is going to determine. If I stop having fun in this game, then it's time to go."
"Regardless of the money left on your contract?" I asked him.
"Regardless what it is. Dude, I'm all set. I played this game growing up because I love it. Where I come from [the Dominican Republic], that's what they do. I just enjoy every moment. I'm just blessed to have an opportunity to play. Many, many people wish they could have the opportunity. But I think it's just a game, and with that game you've got to have fun.
"Sometimes you get caught up in the pressure and trying to do too much here and there and you forget to have fun. I always have fun. It doesn't matter what the scoreboard says. I'm always having fun, talking to other guys. They even come to first base and ask me about hitting. I try to help them out as much as I can in the 30 seconds before the pitcher throws the next pitch. That's me. I don't think I will ever change that. That's the same way I was taught growing up: Having great people who took me under their wing in St. Louis.
"I still talk to Placido Polanco, one of my best friends. I talk to him almost every other day. And that's something he tells me: When you lose that joy, when you stop having fun, it's time to go."
The huge numbers of the MVP-caliber Pujols probably aren't coming back. Pujols is fighting against a normal decline due to age as well as the prolonged trend of the worst hitting environment in 40 years, thanks in part to better pitching and sophisticated shifts. (He has grounded out to the shortstop or third baseman 126 times this year in 134 games.) He benefits from hitting behind Mike Trout, whose extra-base power and speed provide RBI opportunities. (Pujols has knocked in Trout 23 times.)
But there are some signs that Pujols is a threat again. His line-drive rate, for instance, is the best it has been since 2002. He still has tremendous hand-eye coordination, so as strikeouts keep hitting record highs in baseball, he retains the skill of knocking in runs with outs. (He has 11 such RBI this year.) He looks the happiest he has been over his three seasons with the Angels, the first season made difficult by a .190 start while his family remained in St. Louis for two months (he has hit .282 since) and the second one marred by the foot injury. He has missed only two games this year. He may not be an MVP candidate, but he is an important piece for the Angels if they are to make a run in October.
Athletics' Offense Hits August Skid
Oakland, which looked like the best team in baseball for the first half of the season, is in danger of missing the postseason at the rate it is slipping. Things have gone so sideways that cool-headed manager Bob Melvin ripped his club after it was swept in Anaheim, choosing "pathetic" and "embarrassing" as his modifiers.
While many people want to simplify the Athletics' skid as the effect of trading Yoenis Cespedes, what really happened is that John Jaso and Jed Lowrie went down with injuries, while the rest of baseball figured out guys like Brandon Moss and Derek Norris.
Oakland is a fascinating team because it banked on a very specific offensive profile: Stock the roster with flyball hitters who either switch-hit or can share a position with a platoon partner. It's a sound idea on paper. While matchup bullpens are all the rage, Oakland's hitters have the platoon advantage in 72 percent of their at-bats, third-best in the league and well above the league average of 58 percent.
And why the flyball hitters? Three reasons: Hit home runs, stay out of double plays and counter-attack the modern sinker/cutter combination in which pitchers pound the bottom of the zone with velocity and movement. A flyball hitter swings with a slightly upward arc in his stroke, which works better against pitches low in the zone. Oakland has the lowest groundball-to-flyball rate in baseball.
"Walks, home runs and stay out of double plays," Melvin said.
But are pitchers catching up to the one-dimensional approach? The A's had the lowest batting average in the league in August (.223); only the Mets hit worse.
"I know one thing," said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, "when we played them, they swung the bats. I was expecting them to take, take, take because of the whole Moneyball approach. But when they got a pitch they were looking for, they were hacking. All of them, up and down the lineup, were swinging. I didn't expect to see that."
Gonzalez is right: Thanks to hitting coach Chili Davis, the A's do sit on pitches, and when they get them, they pounce. The 2014 A's do swing at pitches more often than the 2002 A's, but not by much (43.9 percent to 42.9 percent). They also swing at more pitches in the zone than their glamorized predecessors (70.6-68.9) — again, not by much. The bigger difference is what has happened to MLB hitters overall. Compared to 2002, they take more strikes (17.6 percent now, 16.6 percent then), swing and miss more (22.4 percent now, 19.9 then) and have a higher groundball-to-flyball rate (0.84-0.69).
The Great Relief Pitching Split
Relief pitching has become so good and so deep that it has become the great separator in today's game when it comes to determining what makes a good hitter. The back half of games in 2014 is about a manager matching up his relievers to give him the best chance at getting out a particular hitter. It's a batter-by-batter world. A guy like Ryan Howard, who is vulnerable to lefthanders, gets neutralized in the late innings of close games.
Relievers allow a .241 batting average, a 15-point drop from what starters allow. Ten years ago the difference was 12 points. Twenty years ago it was five points. You get the point.
Who is most harmed by the power arms and matchup problems coming out of modern bullpens? Here are the regular players with the worst decline from their overall average when they face relief pitching:
And here's the inverse: the guys who are better when relievers take over:
August Is New Low For Offense
When it comes to the lack of offense in today's game, you know how people like to say "wait until the weather warms up" or "nothing's wrong; it just goes in cycles?" Don't listen to them. Baseball's troubling trend of games taking longer but providing less action (the ball in play) continues to deepen.
MLB just posted the worst month for hitting we've seen all year, in terms of batting average (.250) and on-base percentage (.311). In fact, last month was the fifth-worst August in the past 100 years for hitters to get on base:
Look again at those seasons. The deadball era of the 1910s spawned the livelier ball, and the low run-scoring environment of the 1960s triggered the lowering of the mound and the DH. Of course, today, with sophisticated shifts, layers of specialized relief pitching, a seemingly endless supply of hard throwers and detailed scouting technologies that overwhelmingly favor the prevention (not production) of runs, we can continue to do nothing about the trend and allow pitching to squeeze more offense out of the game.
Nationals, Dodgers notes
The Nationals look like the best team in baseball right now. On Monday, in a 6-4 win over the Dodgers, Washington became the first team this year with four homers and four steals in the same game, and also became the first team in nine years to bang four homers against a Dodgers pitcher (Roberto Hernandez) at Dodger Stadium. And pitching coach Steve McCatty was raving about the high-90s fastball with command and late life that ace Stephen Strasburg featured in his last start. Los Angeles manager Don Mattingly, meanwhile, has arranged his rotation to have Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu start all six remaining games against the Giants. Los Angeles is 21 games over .500 when one of its big three start, and five games under when anybody else gets the ball.
Mattingly does not plan to use Joc Pederson as a defensive replacement even though the rookie is the team's best defensive outfielder. Mattingly said he doesn't want to "upset" the club after working hard to settle on the right combination of outfielders, with Carl Crawford and Scott Van Slyke in left, Yasiel Puig in center and Matt Kemp in right. By the way, Mattingly believes Puig, who is fading late for a second straight season (his .247 slugging percentage last month was the worst by a Dodgers regular in August in 12 years), needs a more consistent approach to the game. Puig has no set pregame routine. "Yasiel is emotional," the manager said. "I think if he's going to get focused that's got to be a part of it."
Here's another fix you can expect next season to the replay review system: Owners are expected to install super slow-motion video cameras trained on first base in all 30 parks. Baseball officials are seeing that almost three-quarters of reviews occur on plays at first base, and too often the normal-speed cameras blur the ball and foot.