You may have heard: Albert Pujols has been bad so far this season. Really bad. With an 0-for-4 on Sunday, Pujols is now hitting .216/.266/.295 in his 94 PA, with seven doubles (tied for ninth in the AL), but just four unintentional walks, and, most bizarrely, no homers.
It’s early. But it’s also about 15% of the way into the season, so it’s not that early; Barry Bonds started off terribly in his historic 2001, hitting .103/.188/.241 in his first seven games, but while it took a while for his batting average to come around, by the end of game 22 he sported a .363 OBP and .747 SLG.
And Pujols has been walking about half as often as what had been his custom and striking out a lot more often, and (relatedly, of course) he appears to have expanded his strike zone. He’s also facing mostly new pitchers, which can’t help, and is sporting what would be a career-best line drive rate, so, like I said, it’s early. But it’s…not not discouraging.
So to reintroduce some hope, I decided to find some seasons by other truly great hitters that started off comparably to Pujols’ 2012, but that ended as great seasons. And I noticed something: that doesn’t happen often. Ted Williams really never started a season badly until his second-to-last (which also ended badly), for instance, nor did peak Babe Ruth or Jimmie Foxx.
You won’t find a truly legendary season, like Bonds’ 2001, that started out anything like Pujols’ 2012 through as many games. But you will, occasionally, find a season that starts this way and turns into a great one. Here are the six best examples I could find, roughly in order of their applicability to Pujols:
6. Willie Mays, 1954. Mays had had a promising rookie year as a 20 year old in 1951, then spent most of 1952 and all of ’53 off fighting in Korea. He came back looking a little rusty in ’54, and on the morning of May 6, through 19 games and 82 plate appearances, he was hitting just .244/.268/.423, having shown some power (a double, two triples and three homers), but nothing else. From the May 6 game on, Mays hit a remarkable .361/.433/.706, finishing the full season at .345/.411/.667 with 41 HR and 13 triples. He was, of course, unbelievably awesome for at least the next twelve seasons after that.
5. Stan Musial, 1953. Stan had a couple slow starts in his career, but 1953 was the worst (among his peak years). Coming off of a year in which he won his third straight batting title and led the league in doubles, hits, runs, slugging percentage, OPS and OPS+, Musial, 32 years old, just as Albert is this year, hit just .233/.317/.356 with just one HR and six total extra-base hits. From May 12 on, though, he was Stan Musial again, hitting .352/.453/.644 to finish at .337/.437/.609 with 200 hits (despite also drawing a league-leading 105 walks) and 53 doubles. He held it together for five more excellent seasons after that at about the same level, before starting to drop off at age 38.
4. Frank Robinson, 1962. After having led the league in SLG and OPS+ in both ’60 and ’61 (and winning an MVP in the latter), the 26 year old Robinson started out 1962 just horribly: in 20 games and 86 PA, Robinson had hit .192/.302/.315, with just one HR. The Reds had both May 2 and 3 off, though, and Robinson did nothing but tear the cover off the ball from May 4 on out, hitting .362/.437/.666 with 38 HR in the remaining 142 games. He ended up with what was probably his best year prior to the 1966 triple crown season, leading the league in runs, doubles, OBP, SLG, and OPS+. He finished fourth in the MVP race, and probably should’ve finished second (behind Mays, who in reality finished second behind Wills).
3. Mike Schmidt, 1985. Schmidt was 35 years old in ’85 and, as with Pujols, had seen his OPS decline slightly but steadily for the previous three years (though Schmidt’s .919 in ’84 had still led the NL, as had his 36 HR and 106 RBI). So you’d be forgiven for wondering if he had lost it completely as of the morning of May 13, 1985, when, through 28 games and 108 PA in 1985, Schmidt was hitting .196/.287/.283, with two homers (but just two other extra-base hits, both doubles) and 25 strikeouts. From then on, though, he hit .293/.393/.582 with 31 homers. It was still probably his worst full season between 1974 and 1987, and he didn’t recover quickly enough to make the All-Star team or be mentioned on any MVP ballots (the first time since 1978, for both of those), but it was an excellent season nonetheless: .277/.375/.572 (149 OPS+), 5.3 rWAR. He carried that new life right through and won his third MVP, probably deservedly, in 1986.
2. Willie McCovey, 1967. Stretch was 29, and had been excellent for three out of the previous four seasons, but probably didn’t really strike anyone as a Hall of Famer, just another one-tool first baseman who could hit the ball a long way. Then he started off 1967 hitting a legitimately distressing .171/.284/.366 in 96 PA, with five homers but nothing else, and with 28 strikeouts in 23 games. Beginning on May 12, McCovey hit .299/.398/.572 in 112 games, ending with a 159 OPS+ that was right in line with his previous two years. Then from 1968 through 1970, McCovey led the NL in SLG, OPS and OPS+ three times and HR and RBI twice each, winning an MVP in ’69. The bounce-back in ’67 set the stage for McCovey to blossom into a future Hall of Famer and probably one of the most feared hitters of all time: his 45 intentional walks in 1969 and 40 in 1970 set a standard that wasn’t even approached by another soul until Barry Bonds came along.
1. Lou Gehrig, 1935. Age 32, just like Pujols, and the one player it’s easiest, or at least most gratifying, to compare Pujols’ career to date to. Gehrig always drew walks, but that’s about all he did in the first 20 games of 1935, hitting .225/.368/.324 with two homers and only one other extra base hit (a double) in 87 PA. From May 14 through the end of the season, Gehrig hit a Gehrig-like .345/.481/.623, with 28 HR and 10 3B. He led the league in runs, walks, OBP, and with 9.2 rWAR. He was equally great for the two seasons after that, and of course it doesn’t seem to have been normal age-related stuff that slowed him down.
So this can’t really mean that much, but I thought it was interesting. If you’re looking for meaning in it, though, there are two things to note: first, in each case above, and in fact in every one of the dozens of individual seasons I looked at, the great slugger in question had at least hit a single home run by this point in the season. Second, only Schmidt had seen the same decline leading up to his slow start that Pujols saw from 2009 to 2011. (Gehrig had been heading in that direction — from 9.7 rWAR in 1931 to 8.6 to 7.9 — but then he ruined that with 10.7 in ’34, the second-best of his entire career.)
And that’s what concerns me, really, much more than the numbers. Anybody can have a bad three weeks or so. The fact that (at least through Saturday) he hasn’t yet managed even a warning-track flyout is certainly very odd, and the general downward trend he seems to have been on coming into this year makes these numbers (and that failure to even put a real charge into one) seem more meaningful than they would otherwise be. He’s going to hit a home run this year, and probably a whole bunch of them, and he’ll probably be a very good player. I like Pujols a lot, and I hope he pulls a Schmidt or Gehrig. But I think there’s enough here to start feeling just a little worried. Especially if, you know, you just signed him for the next decade.