Albert Pujols started the 2012 season slowly and ended it slower, causing many to jump off the first baseman's bandwagon. He hit just .217 in April and didn't hit his first homer until May 6, but he eventually caught fire. From May 6 through August 28, he posted a .993 OPS with 29 home runs. Pujols cooled off though, hitting just one more home run through the end of the season.
In October, Pujols had surgery on his right knee, described as a "cleanup." Both he and his team are confident he will be ready for Opening Day. For perhaps the first time in his career, the expectations on the 33-year-old are not sky-high.
Aside from the age and injury concerns, the most surprising change last season was his walk rate. Always known for having one of the best eyes at the plate, his walk rate dipped from 15 percent in 2010 to nine percent in 2011 to below eight percent last year. Along with that, his 11 percent strikeout rate was his highest since his rookie season in 2001.
FanGraphs shows that Pujols has begun to swing at increasingly more pitches out of the strike zone, going from 23 percent in 2009 to 27.5, 32 and 36 percent in the following three seasons.
Additionally, the heat maps from ESPN Stats & Info show that Pujols has gone from having tremendous plate coverage as recently as 2010 to dominating only the inside part of the plate. In each of 2010 and '11, Pujols hit seven homers to the right of center. He did that just twice last year. Overall, his isolated power on balls to the opposite field has declined from .312 in 2010 to .194 in 2011 and .105 last year.
Still, his production from May through August last year was no fluke. Even with vanishing plate discipline and a growing tendency to be pull-happy, he is still a 30-homer threat as he enters his mid-30s. But he is done competing for the MVP award. Baseball-Reference puts him at 5.1 and 4.6 WAR over the past two seasons. Good, great even, but not MVP-caliber. Each of the top four players in AL MVP balloting posted at least 6.7 WAR. He would have to have a season similar to Justin Morneau’s 2006 in a similar context (a very uninspiring pool of MVP candidates).
That is nigh-on impossible with the man standing in left field for the Halos: Mike Trout. Trout seemingly effortlessly posted 10.7 WAR en route to a second-place AL MVP finish, putting himself in historically great company based on his age (now 21) and five-tool arsenal. Pujols hasn't gone into double-digit WAR in his career; the closest he came was 9.4 in 2009 and 9.0 in '08. Trout is a mortal lock to cross the 6-WAR range that generally puts players in MVP discussions, but it would be optimistic to expect that from Pujols considering his position, his age, and his injury concerns.
Pujols may have a bounce-back year in 2013. Heck, he might even slug 40 homers, but as long as Trout is in the lineup every day for the Angels, Pujols won't win another MVP award.