After pounding his 496th home run, you could feel a little bit of joy for Albert Pujols. Big money or no, the Los Angeles Angels slugger had taken quite a tumble from his days as the game’s best ballplayer. He’s apparently healed up completely from last year’s plantar fasciitis that “resolved” into a partial plantar fascia tear, ending his season two months early and sticking him with the worst numbers of his career: His highest ground-ball rate, his lowest power numbers (both in terms of slugging and Isolated Power). And it’s hard not to envision how a weaker Pujols wasn’t someone who was easier to get to make hit your pitch, contributing to a career-low walk rate and batting average on balls in play.
But that was last year, and his recent run of clouting four home runs in his past six games is a nice reminder of what Pujols can be when he can stand on two feet. And, more importantly, when he can dig in again and really use the lower-body strength that produced one of the best power hitters at any position, let alone first base.
Take a quick look at his heat maps between his injured 2013 and his 2014 season through Monday night’s game, and you’ll see a big difference between the guy who struggled to deliver last season and the guy whose ability to consistently mash stuff inside the zone will put him in Cooperstown, a skill that looks like it’s back in the early going:
That’s great to see, because if you look at what Albert Pujols was, you’re seeing the guy the Angels thought they’d signed when they gave him $240 million. Pujols resembled that player in his first season with the Angels, ripping 80 extra base hits. But perhaps the real key to his dominance was Pujols’ complete dominance of pitches inside the strike zone. As Brooks Baseball’s data over at Baseball Prospectus reflects, from 2007-2012, pitchers might have tried to stay low and outside, but he consistently wouldn’t go fishing, offering on just 184 of 1,422 pitches (overwhelmingly the most pitches thrown to any zone against him). More often, that forced pitchers to come into the zone against him, where he’d just as reliably pound them. That 2013/2014 heat map contrast is a nice reminder of the Pujols of old.
That wasn’t the only bit of Phat Albert popping out of the wayback machine lately: He turned a 3-6-3 double play against the A’s on Monday, and whether you grew up thinking a young Eddie Murray or a clean Keith Hernandez was the acme of first-base play, you couldn’t help but love seeing that kind of footwork and anticipation around the bag from the former Gold Glover.
It might be too easy to say last year’s plantar fasciitis belongs to last year, but if Pujols has fended off for a few more years the move to DH that's expected to come at some point during his time as an Angels, so much the better. More importantly, when the Angels gave Pujols his 10-year deal, this is what they expected. Not forever, and not in the field, but they signed Pujols to be the kind of franchise-level bat who can carry them.
Remember, when the Angels signed him, how big Mike Trout was going to be was still a matter of speculation. If Pujols is not just some old indulgence Arte Moreno doesn’t have to apologize to his accountant for, but cranks out several seasons more like his American League initiation in 2012, that’s part of a lineup you can win with. With tough series against the A’s, Tigers, Nationals and Yankees to look forward to, the Halos can’t count on Trout being hot the entire time, lest they dig an early hole that endangers their relevance for months to come.
Most of all, the Angels need Pujols to age gracefully, to put Father Time on hold for another year, maybe four. They need his second act as an Angel of Anaheim to add luster to his Hall of Fame career, not tarnish it. In short, they need Albert Pujols. All it took was a hot streak like this to remind folks that they still have him.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.