Regression Report: Pujols’ Bat Heats Up

Albert Pujols has been money over the last couple of weeks. Is it possible that the old Pujols is back?

Regression, defined as a return to a former or less developed state, is a word thrown around a lot in baseball. When a season is so long – when there are thousands and thousands of data points to collect – there’s no reason for fans and analysts of the game to jump to early-season conclusions about a batter or pitcher, only to see those same players regress to their mean.

Sometimes though, things change. Sometimes a return to former play doesn’t occur because a player developed, hitting the ball well or throwing it with more velocity. Good numbers from a surprising source doesn’t always mean regression is about to occur. Perhaps that player is in store for a good season.

Each week, the plan with this article is to look at a handful of guys who seem to be outdoing themselves. While these players are sure to regress, some are bound to do so more than others. And that’s what I’m looking to figure out.

Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Over the last two weeks, Albert Pujols is batting to a .340/.400/.740 slash with 6 home runs, 11 runs scored and 14 runs batted in. Over this stretch of 12 games, he’s gotten a hit in 10 of them, including 7 multi-hit contests.

The man is on fire, looking like he did during the magical mid-2000s. But is it sustainable? Is the old Albert Pujols back?

There are a few things that point to him playing at the level we’ve all come to love, or at least closer to it than we’ve seen from him in an Angels uniform. The first is his strikeout rate. Currently, Pujols is getting knocked out at the plate 8.2% of the time, down from the 11.3% and 12.4% figures he saw in 2012 and 2013. His power isn't being sacrificed as a result, either. His current .330 ISO, while it may regress a bit, is the highest he’s seen since 2008.

Perhaps the stronger strikeout numbers are due to his decreased swing percentage on pitches outside the strike zone. Over the past two years, Pujols was swinging at about 35% of pitches thrown outside of the zone, while his year, that number’s dropped to 27.8%, much closer to his career 23.7% rate. As a result, the number of times Pujols is making contact on pitches outside the strike zone is decreasing, but he’s getting better contact on pitches within the strike zone, staying patient at the plate.

His batted ball profile shows slightly iffy signs, especially his low 14.3% line-drive rate. That, and his home run per fly ball percentage is far higher than his career norm. If he can turn some of his ground balls into line drives, he should continue to hit for a decent average. But we probably shouldn’t expect this home run tear to keep up.

He’s been better at the plate, both from a power and discipline standpoint. The real question will be whether or not he can stay healthy during his age-34 season, something he’s failed to do over the last few seasons.

Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates

Andrew McCutchen has something against the first month of the season. Though the Pirates’ outfielder has a career .286 average, his career-long numbers in March and April show just a .270 average with very little power (.162 ISO versus a .194 career ISO).

The trend continued in 2014, as Cutch started the season with five hitless games over his first 10 contests. But over the last two weeks, last year’s NL MVP has turned in up a notch, despite his team looking about as good as a two-month old unsealed bag of bread.

McCutchen has hit to a .327/.431/.636 slash since April 14th, hitting four bombs and driving in 10 runs. The reason he makes this list is to simply show how regression works – he’s one of the best hitters in the game, and despite his early-season struggles, this is just what happens with Cutch. His batted ball profile is still in line with his career totals, and his plate discipline really isn’t that far off, either. Expect this “new” McCutchen to stay.

Kyle Seager, Seattle Mariners

Like McCutchen, Seattle’s Kyle Seager started his season off in a forgettable way. Through his first 10 games, the infielder saw just four hits, resulting in zero multi-hit games. Fantasy owners were quick to call him a bust, but he showed up this past week, and is now sporting three multi-hit contests over his last three games.

Again, this is regression at its finest. Seager has a career .288 BABIP, and over the last week, that number has been .333. Despite this recent surge within the metric, his season-long BABIP is just .241, a sign that his .228 batting average is bound to spike even more. His value in daily fantasy leagues may be advantageous given his slow start and recent play, so be aware of this if you’re looking for an infielder to play.

Josh Beckett, Los Angeles Dodgers

Over his last three starts, Dodgers’ pitcher Josh Beckett has a 1.00 ERA, an 8.50 K/9 rate and an average of six innings pitched per contest. On the season – which includes his first start against the Tigers – Beckett’s throwing nine strikeouts per nine, all while pitching to a solid 2.45 ERA.

It’s fun and all to see Josh Beckett look like a 26-year-old version of himself, but his FIP numbers lead us to believe that he’s bound to regress. The dude’s opponents have a ridiculously low .173 BABIP, when Beckett’s average over his career has been .290. His LOB%, too, is quite large, sitting nearly 13 percentage points higher than his career average.

Even still, when he inevitably regresses, his ERA may still sit well under 4.00. And if he can continue to strike out batters at his current rate, Beckett could be in store for a solid campaign for L.A.. Like Pujols, health will play a major role.