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May 3, 2012

On the Beat

The Prince and the Pauper Numbers

by John Perrotto

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Getting Albert Pujols to provide a window on his soul is about likely as Joe Morgan extolling the virtues of VORP. The Angels first baseman will talk about baseball and hitting, but he will never reveal what's going on the inside. Thus, it is not a surprise that Pujols professes to have no concern over the fact that he has yet to hit a home run in 107 plate appearances this season after signing a 10-year, $240 million contract as a free agent in the offseason. The zero homers are coming from a man who went deep 445 times in 11 years with the Cardinals while becoming a franchise icon and the game's most feared slugger.

Pujols says switching teams hasn't been a big deal, and neither has moving to the American League from the National League. He dismisses any attempts at psychoanalysis by saying, "It's still baseball, the same game I've been playing all my life."

Pujols isn't playing like he has throughout his major-league life, though. During his time with the Cardinals, he won three NL Most Valuable Player awards, six Silver Sluggers, two Gold Gloves, the NL Rookie of the Year award in 2001, and two World Series rings, including one last fall.

Yet Pujols has a goose egg in the home run column, and the rest of his numbers aren't much better. His triple slash line is .208/.252/.287, and his True Average is a sickly .217. Worst of all, with a -0.4 WARP, Pujols isn't even playing at replacement level.

Not surprisingly, the Angels are off to a disappointing 10-15 start in a season in which they were expected to challenge the defending two-time pennant-winner Rangers in the AL West. The Angels are still last in the division even after sweeping a three-game series from the Twins, who have the worst record in the major leagues, that ended Wednesday with Jered Weaver's no-hitter.

While Pujols insists he is just having a slow start and his problems aren't mental, Angels right fielder Torii Hunter isn't necessarily buying it. It's not that Hunter thinks Pujols is a liar but that the 31-year-old slugger doesn't want to show weakness by making what might be perceived to be excuses.

"I don't think Albert has ever made an excuse in his life," Hunter said. "And I don't think he's going to start now."

Yet Hunter believes Pujols is still in the process of making the adjustments that his change in address entails. Hunter understands better than anyone; he was in a similar situation four years ago in his first season with the Angels. Hunter had spent his entire 11-year career with the Twins and had become a beloved figure in the Upper Midwest before signing a five-year, $90-million contract with the Angels as a free agent.

"It's different just because you're going from the only place you've ever known as a professional baseball player to a new organization, and it's a big change," Hunter said. "In my case, I was at least staying in the same league. I knew a lot of the players on the Angels and had talked to most of the coaches at one time or another from playing against them. I knew the stadiums and the pitchers and what teams were trying to do to me.

"I can only imagine what Albert is going through right now. He's got a lot to get used to. It's a new team, a new league, a lot of pitchers he hasn't faced before and the stadiums in the AL West are a little bit bigger than most of the ones over in the National League. I'm sure it has to be playing a part in his slow start. I'm not saying it's the sole reason but this, has to be an adjustment for him."

Though his numbers are poor, the Angels are not having buyer's remorse on Pujols. PECOTA, too, feels he will prove his worth by season's end, as it projects him to hit .305 with 36 homers and 106 RBI.

"Albert's going to hit; there is no question about that," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "He's just off to a slow start, but everyone knows what kind of hitter he is. What makes it look worse is that we're at the start of the season and all the numbers are naked. If he went through a stretch like this in the middle of the season, it would still be reflected in his statistics to an extent, but it wouldn't look as bad as it does now."

Hunter and the rest of the Angels are also happy to have Pujols on their side. Hunter thinks back to the day last December when he was working out at the Athletes Performance Institute in Frisco, Texas, and reliever LaTroy Hawkins, who had signed as a free agent with the Angels a day earlier, broke the news of Pujols' signing.

"I was between sets of pushups and I fell down, rolled over, and started running around the place yelling, "We got Pujols!" Hunter recalled with a smile. "Actually, I used a few stronger words in there, too, that probably aren't good for public consumption."

Hunter then stopped.

"I still feel the same way now," Hunter said. "Don't pay attention to what his numbers say now. Just look at the end of the season. Crazy things happen in the first month. You'll see a guy hitting .400 at the end of April who is really a .250 hitter and by the end of the year he's right around .250. You know what guys are capable of once they've been in the league for a few years, and everyone knows Albert is a great player."

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A few minutes with Rockies manager Jim Tracy

On why the Rockies decided to go with an older lineup after acquiring catcher Ramon Hernandez, second baseman Marco Scutaro, and right fielder Michael Cuddyer in the offseason: "Clubhouse leadership is very important and, in my opinion, we have people that are very, very capable of that and don't fear the fact of picking up the baton and carrying it out there. We didn't always have that last season. Take the baton and run with it and let's engage one another. And let's get it to the point where, if something isn't the way that we want to see it be done, as Colorado Rockies, somebody step forward and address it. And maybe some of these things won't even make their way back to my office and I won't have to walk out there."

On if changing the lineup has made a difference on and/or off the field: "I can already say that this club competes as hard as any club I've ever managed. If we are down by a couple of runs, we don't mope, we don't hang our heads. Instead, we just get to work and do everything we can to get back into the game. The effort has been tremendous with this group of guys, and I suspect it will be that way all season. What our final record will be because of that, I can't tell you, but I do know that this team will continue to compete all the way through game No. 162 and hopefully beyond."

On the challenges of managing a team that includes the three newcomers, who are all over 30, and 38-year-old first baseman Todd Helton:  "One of the things everyone, including the media and fans, is going to have to understand is that we have some guys on this club, that if you ran them out there every single day in April, May, and June, when you get to July, August, and September, there is not going to be much left of them. We are built in such a way that on certain days we are going to have to do some different things. You'll often see a much different lineup in a day game following a night game. You may see our entire five-man bench in the starting lineup on a given day. We factored this in going into our planning going into the offseason. We knew if we went with an older club, we'd also needed a deeper club and I feel we have good depth."

---

Scouts' views

Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista: "It's taken a couple of years, but pitchers are finally learning how to work him. You've got to keep the ball away, away, away and not give in and throw him a pitch on the inner half of the plate. He'll crush the inside pitch, but he has problems taking outside pitches the other way."

Rockies outfielder Tyler Colvin: "He's doing a nice job for them off the bench. He was stretched last year when the Cubs tried to play him fairly regularly. He's at his best if you get him 300 at-bats, spot him in left and right, and maybe use him in center if you really need someone there. He could have a long career in that kind of role."

Nationals left fielder Bryce Harper: "The only thing that might cause him to get sent back to the minors is if he gets too impatient at the plate. Pitchers are going to feed him a steady diet of off-speed stuff low and away until he shows he can either lay off those pitches or do something with them. That's going to be the biggest test for him because he has the raw talent to not only play in the major leagues now but be a star."

Indians right-hander Derek Lowe: "He seems a lot more comfortable and confident on the mound than he did the last couple of years in Atlanta. I thought he'd get destroyed pitching in the American League, but the change of scenery seems to be doing him good. Maybe being around a lot more younger guys with the Indians has rejuvenated him."

Orioles left-hander Brian Matusz: "He's back to doing the things that made him successful when he first came up to the big leagues, most of all it's him being aggressive. He's challenging hitters again and he isn't afraid of them making contact against him. All he did last year was nibble around the plate and hope the hitters chased bad balls. You could tell he was afraid of the bat and didn't want them to hit it."

---

Five observations

  • Andy Pettitte has won 240 major-league games and five World Series rings while earning $125 million in his career, yet I wouldn't have wanted to be him this week while he was forced to testify against close friend Roger Clemens. Pettitte didn't come off very well as a witness, but who would under those circumstances?
  • The next time a general manager says "good pitching is hard to find," reference him to the nearest drug rehabilitation center. After all, if the pitchers in question are to be believed, Oil Can Boyd won 16 games for the 1986 Red Sox despite smoking crack cocaine every day of the season and Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter for the 1970 Pirates while high on LSD.
  • The Rays went 19-12 when Evan Longoria was on the disabled list last season, but as much as I love Joe Maddon, I can't buy his talk that the slugging third baseman won't be missed dearly while he spends the next 6-8 weeks on the DL with a torn hamstring.
  • It is fitting that the Cardinals are going to retire Tony La Russa's No. 10. It's a well-deserved honor.
  • If you like the whip-around style of the NFL Network's Red Zone Channel on football Sunday afternoons then you'll love Full Count, a collaboration between MLB.com and Yahoo! Sports that can be found here. I highly recommend checking it out.

---

The Seattle Times' Geoff Baker explains why major-league managers can't always do what the advanced metrics say they should in this week's Must Read.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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