The Machine Returns with a Vengeance

albert pujols

Entering the 2014 season, Albert Pujols appeared far more often on the list of the game’s worst contracts than the list of the game’s top players. The 34-year-old, who slugged a career-low .437 and missed the final two months of the 2013 season to undergo foot surgery, got fired up during spring training when a reporter compared young whippersnapper Mike Trout‘s career to Pujols’ decade-plus run of dominance. Since then, The Machine has been on a mission to shelve the bad contract talk and prove he’s still one of the baddest hitters on the planet.

Entering play Monday, Pujols is second among American League batters in slugging (.620) and trails only Chicago’s Jose Abreu for the MLB lead with 9 homers (Abreu 10).┬áHe’s answering any lingering questions about his bat speed by throttling “hard” pitches — fastballs, sinkers, cutters and splitters. Pujols is doing an especially good job of covering the outer half of the plate:

Pujols’ slugging percentage by location vs. hard pitches, 2014
strike-zone (36)

Pujols’ slugging percentage by location vs. hard pitches, 2013
strike-zone (37)

During his career-worst 2013 season, Pujols hit 13 home runs and slugged .476 versus hard pitches. Not terrible, but a far cry from the work he had done in years past (.659 slugging percentage against hard stuff from 2008-12) and not a standout performance compared to the MLB average (.425). In 2014, though? Pujols has already crushed seven hard pitches over the fence, tying him with Twins second baseman Brian Dozier for tops in the game, and he’s slugging .710.

What’s behind Pujols’ marked improvement against fastballs, sinkers, cutters and splitters? A little bit of everything. He’s making more contact against hard stuff (13.6% miss rate in 2014, 14.9% in 2013). He’s also chasing fewer pitches off the plate (28.7%, compared to 32.7%). Perhaps the biggest change is that he’s once again ripping pitches down the left field line. Pujols has pulled 53.5% of hard pitches put in play this year, up from 40.6% in 2013. Five of his seven homers against hard stuff have been hit to left field:

Pujols’ 2014 spray chart vs. hard pitches

Pujols recently became the third-youngest member of the 500 home run club, getting there faster than anyone not named Alex Rodriguez or Jimmie Foxx. No matter how much he rakes, Pujols’ name is going to remain on those lousy contract lists — no one wants to pay the gross domestic product of a developing country to a first baseman as he reaches his forties. But he’s at least quelling concerns that he’s already an A-Rod-like albatross on the payroll, a sunken cost that the Angels must endure. If Pujols can keep hitting like The Machine for a while longer, GM Jerry Dipoto might get to keep his job — and the Angels might have a prayer in the AL West.