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Jose Bautista, Albert Pujols And The Struggle For Two Of Baseball’s Elite Hitters

Not every superstar can start the season off like Matt Kemp. Sometimes, even the best players in baseball struggle. By now you’ve no doubt heard countless concerns about Albert Pujols and Jose Bautista, two superstars in their prime who rank amongst the worst hitters in the league. It’s an odd sight for the best hitter of our generation and the reigning home run king, and today I’m going to take a look at why they’re struggling.

Jose Bautista came out of seemingly nowhere in 2010, hitting 54 home runs and putting up a then career high 995 OPS. The following year he was even better, as despite only hitting 43 homers he managed a 1.056 OPS. Many have pointed to Bautista’s struggles since the All Star Break, suggesting pitchers have figured him out. And with an 896 OPS during the second half of 2011, I wouldn’t blame you for saying that.

However, looking at his numbers like that is fairly misleading. Bautista put up a 1.068 OPS in July, and followed that up with a 1.023 OPS in August. It was in September that he struggled, hitting a fairly pedestrian 852 OPS. That’s a lot of numbers I’ve just thrown at you, and I’ll try to break it down in simpler terms.

Bautista was fantastic during the second half of last year. Looking at his overall stats doesn’t tell us the whole story, as his struggles in September mask just how awesome he was in July and August. The reason for his ineffectiveness at the plate doesn’t have anything to do with opposing pitchers figuring him out. Well, in a way they have, but that’s not something that started last year.

Essentially, Bautista’s biggest problem is that when he’s driving the ball he’s not elevating it, and when he’s elevating the ball he’s popping it up. Those problems would seem counterintuitive, but oddly enough it’s why Bautista hasn’t put up the elite numbers we’re used to seeing. When Bautista misses on a pitch, and he’s missed far too often, he’s been popping it up in the infield. As an extreme flyball hitter he’s always had a lot of infield pop ups, but with a 20% infield flyball rate, that would be a career high for Bautista. The increase in infield pop ups has provided Bautista with fewer opportunities to put the ball in play and potentially drive in more runs.

Additionally, his BABIP is extremely low at 162. While part of that may be luck, a bigger reason for that is when he does drive the ball with authority, he’s not elevating it. Countless times Bautista has pulled the ball to third base, resulting in a line drive out as it’s hit right at the third baseman. If Bautista was able to elevate the ball like he has in the past, these hits would go for doubles or home runs in left field. Instead, he’s left with a 188 batting average and 744 OPS on balls hit into left field, a far cry from his 462 batting average and 1.498 OPS to left last season.

Bautista still has an elite walk rate (16.1%) and a career low strikeout rate (12.1%), which shows that his plate discipline is still outstanding. The bat speed is still there, so it’s not like he can’t catch up with the fastball. However, the fact that pitchers are throwing him more fastballs then they did last year (58.4% vs 50.3%) would indicate that they’re aware of his struggles and aren’t afraid of throwing him the heater.

All this points to Bautista having a timing issue in his swing. He’s not necessarily chasing more pitches than he has in the past, and he’s still driving the ball for power. He’s just not doing it frequently enough, and once he gets his timing back he should return to his status as an elite hitter in the American League.

Albert Pujols’ struggles are an interesting case. The past few seasons Pujols has seen his OPS decline by nearly 100 points, down from 1.101 in 2009 to 906 in 2011. The Angels payed for the slugger who terrorized opposing pitchers from 2001-2010, but that might not be the guy Pujols is anymore. Nevertheless, he still should be capable of posting a 900 OPS, which would be a welcome sight after his struggles in 2012.

Unlike Bautista, Pujols has posted a career low walk rate (5.6%) and a strikeout rate that would be one of the worst of his career (13.1%). This would seem to indicate that Pujols is chasing more pitches than he has in the past, likely to impress his new team and prove he was worthy of a mega contract. It wouldn’t be the first time Pujols struggled because of a contract situation, as last year he didn’t post an OPS higher than 800 until June. But from June on, he was one of the best hitters in baseball, returning to his elite status as one of the top first baseman in the game. So once Pujols gets into a groove, he should be a dangerous weapon in the heart of the lineup.

If Pujols is indeed struggling from the pressure of his contract, then it’s unlikely he’ll rebound this season. Obviously he won’t be this bad all year, but many star players have tanked in their first season because of the pressure of their contract. The biggest thing Pujols can do at this point, is to stop chasing pitches. His strength is his phenomenal eye at the plate, and he’s getting away from that by swinging at pitches he normally would be taking. With a more patient approach, Pujols should be able to find himself in more favourable counts, resulting in a chance to improve his production.

It’s worth noting that both Bautista and Pujols have both struggled significantly even when they are ahead in the count. When the count is 1-0, 2-0, and 3-0 Bautista doesn’t have an OPS above 630, and Pujols has been the same as long as the count isn’t 3-0. When pitchers are behind in the count this is when hitters are typically most successful, as they know they’ll see a fastball as the pitcher doesn’t want to fall further behind in the count. Last year Pujols and Bautista were extremely successful in these situations, posting OPS of 1.000-1.500 when they were ahead in the count.

This last point would once again indicate that both hitters are struggling with their timing, as they should be dominating opposing pitchers who fall behind in the count. Until Pujols and Bautista can fix their swings and take advantage of pitchers falling behind in the count, they will continue to struggle despite their impressive potential.