Can Albert Pujols Maintain His Recent Power Surge?
There's an old familiar face staring at everyone from atop the leaderboards.
The man once recognized as the best pure hitter in baseball went away for a little while, but the Angels' Albert Pujols is back, baby. He's smokin' taters once again, giving Mike Trout something he has sorely needed for years: a running buddy.
After Thursday's 7-1 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks, Pujols has an American League best 19 home runs, hitting .270/.327/.541, with 37 RBI, 37 runs scored, a weighted on base average (wOBA) of .369 and a weighted runs created (wRC+) of 144. He's on pace for 48 homers this season, which would be the second highest total of his career, one fewer than the 49 he hit in 2006.
The last time Pujols led the league in home runs was his penultimate season in St. Louis, when he hit 42, drove in a league-leading 118 and scored an NL-best 115 runs. And should he continue to homer at his current pace, it would far exceed the 28 longballs he hit last year.
Pujols now has 11 homers in his last 19 games and is sporting a robust .362/.413/.810 slash line in June, with a wOBA of .516 and a wRC+ of 247.
Those are video game numbers. But here's the thing. There doesn't seem to be any concrete reason why the power surge has returned.
His plate discipline stats are all right around where they were last year.
He's walking in fewer plate appearances than he ever has, but he's also not striking as much, just a hair below last year's numbers and far below his career average. But his stats this year are in line with the last few, in which his power diminished. And his batted ball data doesn't offer any clues either.
He's hitting fewer ground balls than last year, but not by a substantial margin, and his line drive rate is almost exactly the same. Interestingly, he's pulling the far less frequently this year, yet his home run totals are way up, and his hard hit percentage is actually down a little bit from last year.
Perhaps the one area that explains Pujols' power surge is the increase in his fly ball percentage, up from 35.4% last year to 41.5% this year. That has been coupled by a dramatic increase in his home run per fly ball rate (HR/FB) of 21.1%, up over last year's 13.9%, and more in line with his prime from 2003 to 2009 when he was routinely between 20 and 22.5%.
Is it merely health? Is it possible that, at 35 years old, Prince Albert is finally feeling fully healthy once again? Or will this power surge run out of juice soon?
Whatever the reason, it's fun watching Pujols move up that all-time home run leaderboard, now sitting at 16th place all-time.
Can he get to 40 homers? If he's truly healthy and can maintain his home run per fly ball rate, the answer is yes. Even though he's not walking much, he's likely taking what opposing pitchers are giving him. He's not striking out at all, so he's putting the ball in play quite a bit. If he continues to hit a lot of fly balls, and the same percentage of those fly balls are leaving the park, he's going to hit 40 to 45 home runs this season.
However, if his 35-year-old body does start to weigh down, a lot of those fly balls that are home runs right now may end up being warning track shots by August or September.
My guess is he falls just short of 40 homers. I can't see him keeping up this pace, especially when you consider that, as of May 28, Pujols was struggling with just a .238/.294/.436 slash line, with nine home runs in 45 games. His recent hot streak has bumped up his totals, but it's likely he'll encounter another rough patch or two this season.
But for now, it's great to see a little of the old Albert Pujols re-emerge. It's been a while.