The good news this week from Los Angeles Angels camp is that Albert Pujols, coming off foot surgery in November, has already played and declared that, barring a setback, he'll be ready for Opening Day, at least to serve as the designated hitter. That puts him ahead of his original timetable, which estimated he would return five months after the surgery and likely miss Opening Day.
Who is Albert Pujols these days? We know he's an all-time great: He's 32nd all time in WAR, 21st among position players and 12th among position players since World War II. He also hit 40 home runs in 2015, his most since swatting 42 back in 2010. Those home runs, however, served to mask a hitter who remained in decline. Check out this trend: .462, .443, .414, .366, .343, .330, .324, .307.
Those are his on-base percentages since 2008. His batting averages share an almost similar straight decline: .357, .327, .312, .299, .285, .258. .272, .244.
Here's one way to visualize Pujols' decline as a hitter -- his hit charts from 2009, when he hit .327/.443/.658 and led the NL in home runs, OBP and slugging, and 2015, when he hit .244/.307/.480:
Pujols has always primarily been a pull hitter, but now, that's pretty much all he does; he pulled 39 of his 40 home runs in 2015. That approach kept his power numbers up, but the man who once sprayed doubles all over the field hit just 22 in 2015. In 2009, we see a dense collection of white dots in left field -- those are groundball base hits. We see fewer in 2015, as Pujols has become one of the easiest players in the majors to shift against. Back in 2009 during the pre-shift era, Pujols hit .278 on grounders; in 2015, that was down to .187.
We can also see Pujols' inability to cover as much of the plate as he once did:
Pujols' strength has been hitting the pitch up in the zone, but the changing strike zone and improved scouting reports have also worked against him. Opponents know he struggles with the low pitch, and now he sees more of them, according to data from ESPN Stats & Information:
Pitches in lower third (or below) of strike zone
2009: 37.5 percent
2015: 45.4 percent
Pitches in lower half (or below) of strike zone
2009: 50.4 percent
2015: 60.8 percent
Pitchers also go inside more often than they once did -- a sign that his bat speed isn't what it once was as they believe they can get fastballs in on his hands. And they also throw him more pitches in the strike zone: from 41.3 percent in 2009 to 48.4 percent in 2015. He simply isn't feared like he once was, a primary reason his walk rate also has declined. Pujols is still an excellent contact hitter with a low swing-and-miss rate, but he has become more prone to chasing pitches out of the zone, as well, another sign that he is forced to guess more often. Indeed, Angels fans have seen that patented Pujols at-bat: He rolls one over to third base or shortstop and -- head down -- heads off to first base for an easy out.
All this is a way of saying that while I hope the foot surgery produces a different Pujols in 2016, the indicators are that this is what he is at 36 years old: a one-dimensional slugger who can run into enough mistakes to launch some home runs.
In 2015, that still produced a decent amount of value: He was worth 2.6 offensive WAR, when 2.0 is about an average major leaguer. But if he hits .230 and has just 28 home runs instead of 40? Then we're talking about a below-average first baseman/designed hitter. And given the state of the rest of the Angels' offense surrounding Mike Trout, you wonder if this team will again struggle to score enough runs.