How Santana can exploit Pujols' 'weakness'

Let’s start off with a quick “Name That Player” quiz. Pencils ready? Thinking caps on? Here you go:

Player A: .296/.401/.553, 23 HR, 70 RBI

Player B: .297/.374/.559, 23 HR, 69 RBI

It would appear that both players are having excellent, highly productive seasons. Yet Player A has been called out in the media for his “struggles”, while Player B has been praised for having a “career year”. Give up? Player A is Albert Pujols and Player B is Paul Konerko.

Pujols is arguably one of the best hitters in baseball, but even “The Machine” is human sometimes. Statistically, he is having one of his worst seasons – his .296 batting average and .553 slugging percentage would both be the lowest marks of his career – and he has just one hit in his last 19 at-bats entering Wednesday.

Last year, Pujols absolutely crushed pitches that were thrown in the upper third of the strike zone and above it. His batting average of .342 and slugging percentage of .631 on those high pitches were both well above the major-league averages of .259 and .420, respectively.

Yet this season he is merely ordinary, hitting .250 and slugging .479, which puts him in the esteemed company of ... Yuniesky Betancourt, who is batting .241 and slugging .470 on these high pitches. Pujols endured one particularly horrible month-long stretch from May 18-June 23, managing just one hit in 22 at-bats (.045) ending on high pitches, with his lone hit a single against the Reds on June 1.

Albert Pujols, Pitches Up

Last year, Pujols feasted on inside fastballs, hitting .349 and slugging .605 when pitchers dared to try and jam him with a heater near his hands. That’s certainly a typical Pujolsian line, considering that the average major-leaguer has posted a .259 batting average and .410 slugging percentage on those same pitches this year.

As my Stats & Info colleague Mark Simon recently pointed out, however, this year Pujols has barely been able to get any good wood on inside fastballs. He’s hitting just .242 and slugging .435 in at-bats ending in such pitches, which puts him in the company of Indians sophomore outfielder Trevor Crowe, who has a .240 batting average and .440 slugging percentage against inside fastballs.

Pujols actually is in the middle of a miserable stretch against these pitches. Dating back to June 24, he has just two hits in 24 at-bats (.083) ending on inside fastballs, including 0-for-8 against lefties.

Albert Pujols, Inside Fastballs

Despite Pujols’ alleged “struggles” this year, pitchers still seem to fear “Prince Albert.” Pitchers throw in the strike zone on 45.1 percent of their pitches to Pujols, the fourth-lowest percentage among players with at least 300 plate appearances. His 66 walks are the second-most in the majors, while his 24 intentional walks are by far the most in baseball.

Pujols and the St. Louis Cardinals look to take the lead in the NL Central, when they face the New York Mets at Citi Field on Wednesday Night Baseball (7 ET on ESPN). Pujols has gone 0-for-5 in his last two games against the Mets, but still remains one of the most successful hitters all-time against the franchise.

Pujols owns a career OPS of 1.035 against the Mets, the second-highest mark ever against them (min. 250 PA). He’s even better in Queens, where his career OPS of 1.179 is the highest of any player against the Mets (min. 100 PA). Good luck to Johan Santana tonight, who has faced Pujols 15 times in his career, with the Cardinals first baseman knocking out six hits, including two home runs and a double.