Posted: Tuesday May 8, 2012 8:30AM ; Updated: Tuesday May 8, 2012 8:30AM
Tom Verducci
Tom Verducci>INSIDE BASEBALL

Slumping Pujols most stunning development in strange season

Story Highlights

Albert Pujols has already been booed and benched in his first year with the Angels

Pujols signed a 10-year, $240 million contract with L.A. last December

The best explanation for the slump is that Pujols has tried to do too much

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Albert Pujols
Albert Pujols is hitting just .197 with one home run so far this season.
Reuters

ANAHEIM -- One day in spring training, when working in the marketing department for the Angels was as gloriously easy as being a meteorologist in Aruba, manager Mike Scioscia sat behind his desk and gave me his definitive plan for how he would handle Albert Pujols. "My goal," he said, "is to have Albert in the lineup 162 times."

Unlike Tony La Russa, Pujols' manager for 11 seasons in St. Louis, Scioscia has the luxury of the designated hitter position, allowing Pujols' bat to remain in the lineup even when he needs a rest from first base or has a minor ailment. There was one worst-case scenario Scioscia, or anybody in baseball for that matter, never contemplated: that Pujols would not hit.

Just 27 games into a 10-year, $240 million contract with Los Angeles, Pujols was booed in his home park last Friday and benched the next night. Yes, Pujols has been that bad. The greatest hitter of our generation hit .194 for a month.

It's the equivalent of Itzhak Perlman playing elementary school recital quality -- for a month straight. It's Leno bombing his monologue 27 consecutive nights, Kate Upton with a month's worth of bad hair days and Meryl Streep with a four-week case of stage fright. There are slumps. There are slow starts. And there is this -- a story unto itself. The Machine, broken.

Derek Jeter once went 0-for-32. Ichiro Suzuki hit .210 in 26 games in May last year. Hank Aaron hit .218 as deep as 32 games into the 1966 season. Ted Williams once went 2-for-29 in 1954. But I can't recall a hitter this great look this bad for this long. I asked Scioscia if he remembered seeing anything like this.

"I remember Pedro Guerrero once went through something, but he wasn't on the level of this guy," Scioscia said. "Vlad Guerrero never went through something like this. Gary Sheffield had trouble when he changed leagues (one home run in April 2004). But the thing with Albert is there are so few hitters who compare to him in any case. He is the elite of the elite."

It took 111 at-bats for Pujols to hit his first home run with the Angels, a two-run shot Sunday off Toronto righthander Drew Hutchinson. After teammate Torii Hunter arranged for the prank of an empty dugout to greet Pujols, the crowd at Angel Stadium wanted a curtain call from Pujols, whom they booed earlier in the game when he whiffed. Pujols declined the invitation.

"I stay focused for nine innings," he said. "That was just a home run that gave us a little cushion. Until you get that 27th out you can't lose that focus."

Somebody asked Pujols about whether he had grown "frustrated" by the slump. The very word stopped him and the room seemed to grow 20 degrees colder in an instant.

"No, never," he said. "This game is about making adjustments and being patient . . . Every player, whether a position player or a pitcher, goes through it where sometimes you try to do too much."

Bingo. It's the best explanation for what happened to Pujols. He fell through the trap door of high profile free agency. The danger underneath the millions of dollars, the billboards, the press conferences and the whole "face of the franchise" salesmanship is trying to live up to all of it right away -- especially for someone who is not an extrovert.

In spring training, Lance Berkman, his former teammate in St. Louis, predicted that new external motivators could invigorate Pujols, just as happened for him after a long history in Houston. Berkman eventually may be proved right, but those very external motivators overwhelmed Pujols at the start, taking a very routine-oriented grinder out of his comfort zone.

Mark Teixiera, Adam Dunn, Carl Crawford, Jayson Werth, Prince Fielder and Jose Reyes all struggled at first after changing teams as high profile free agents in recent years. For Pujols, the ingredients for failure are compounded because of the size of the contract, the personal commitment in him by owner Arte Moreno, a change in leagues that leaves every pitcher looking as difficult to solve as the Sunday Times crossword puzzle, and a family that, until school lets out, is away from him at his St. Louis home.

Pujols and Scioscia have tried to minimize the slump by playing up his number of hard-hit outs. The truth is that Pujols has looked as unsteady as the numbers suggest. He is taking strikes early in counts (he has one first-pitch hit; last year he had 19) and swinging at balls later in counts, occasionally losing his balance at the plate (which almost never happened before), swinging at a greater percent of pitches than at any time in his career (47 percent) and taking fewer walks and rolling over outside pitches (31 groundouts to the left side of the field). His next opposite field hit will be his first.

This major funk happened after Pujols crushed the ball in spring training; he hit .383 with seven home runs. But when the games started for real, Pujols suddenly couldn't hit. To his credit, Pujols has remained accountable. "If I could boo myself, I would boo, too," he said.

He has studied video as if it's calculus and put up a confident front. Indeed, Pujols' own earnestness -- his cage rat ethic, his obligation to Moreno, his deep pride -- could have accelerated his downward spiral. This slump is a mental monster that by now has manifested itself in mechanical flaws.

"He wants so badly to do so well," said his trainer since junior college, Chris Mihlfeld. "He's trying to please everybody -- his new teammates, the fans, the owner who stuck his neck out to sign him . . . He's just trying to force it.

"He's got what, 130 games left? Five hundred more at-bats? I expect him to wind up with numbers like he always does."

The Angels still have about 80 percent of their season to play. There is enough time for Pujols to hit .324 the rest of the season (his career average is .326) and still hit .300. He can hit home runs the rest of the season at the worst rate of his career and still hit 29 home runs.

But the notion of a monster season -- say the .327, 47, 135 from 2009 -- looks remote given the depth of the slump. Already on a two-year decline from those numbers, Pujols will need to pick up the pace just to return to what was considered a down year last season (.299, 37, 99). The Angels clung to the hope that one swing against Hutchinson changed everything.

"Yeah, it can be as simple as one swing," Hunter said. "It could be a bloop. A bunt single. One single can change everything. It changes your mindset. Now he's got one [home run], so that changes the mindset right there."

The Angels can write off those 110 at-bats as the cost of trying to impress a new team, and not connect them to a two-year decline. Scioscia, for one, does not discount the effect of Pujols' lack of familiarity with AL pitchers. "Every day I sit down with the histories," he said, "and there's almost never a significant sample size." This week, for instance, Pujols is likely to see Francisco Liriano, Scott Diamond and Carl Pavano in Minnesota and Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison and Derek Holland in Texas. He has 27 career at-bats combined against those six starters.

It's been an odd year in baseball. Mariano Rivera is hurt, the Orioles and Nationals are winning, the Red Sox have no homefield advantage, Jamie Moyer, 49, and Bryce Harper, 19, might face each other next month, the first complete game for Philip Humber was a perfect game, the Dodgers have stable ownership, and Ozzie Guillen and Delmon Young have been suspended over their spoken words. But strangest of all has been watching the greatest hitter of this generation slump so badly for so long.

 
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