Albert Pujols is, as you might know, a very good baseball player. He is one of the finest hitters in the game today and probably one of the finest hitters to ever play the game of baseball. He is, by virtue of the free agent contract signed this past winter with the Los Angeles Angels, insanely wealthy and a shoo-in Hall of Famer.
Despite being one of the premier sluggers of his generation, Albert Pujols does not strikeout very often. He is the only hitter in the big leagues this year to strike out less than 12% of his plate appearances while posting an ISO over .200 (min 400 PAs.) As such, Albert Pujols does not strike out three times in a single game very often at all, earning this dubious hat trick just ten times in his career and not since 2010. Make that eleven, after last night – the first time against a single pitcher.
Facing Albert Pujols is no picnic for any pitcher. Pujols has incredible plate coverage and a terrific eye. He can hit just about any pitch out of the ballpark and he rarely strikes out, as previously mentioned.
Facing Felix Hernandez is equally unappealing. Felix can throw strikes with each of his superlative offerings, generally he whichever count he chooses. Sounds horrible, doesn’t it?
In their careers going into last night’s game, Pujols and Felix Hernandez faced each other ten times, with Pujols notching two doubles and a home run against a single strikeout. Unsurprising as Albert Pujols is, well, Albert Pujols. In an incredibly limited sample, that is some serious success against one of the premier right-handed pitchers in baseball.
After struggling against Pujols in his career and struggling in his last few starts, Hernandez came into last night’s game in Anaheim with a plan. Before last night, Felix took a standard approach to Pujols. Establish the fastball, offspeed when he got ahead. Via Joe Lefkowitz’s database, here is Felix’s pitch selection versus Albert prior to last night’s outing.
In his first at bat last night, Felix followed the script closely. He started Pujols with two straight two-seam fastballs: one for a called strike and the next high and tight which Pujols swung throw. Felix changed the pace a little, throwing a change that Pujols fouled back. Two straight fastballs out of the zone levelled the count 2-2 but left Pujols exposed for the curve, which came with great vengeance and considerable amounts of embarrassment.
The Royal Curve is not to be trifled with, let there be no doubt.
Next time around, Felix flipped the script. The first pitch Hernandez threw Pujols in his second at bat was a slider. Not a particularly sharp offering, it stayed up and out of the zone for ball one. Felix evens the count with a nice fastball, 92 at the knees on the outside half. Pujols seemed content to take this pitch, running the count to 1-1. Pujols fouls off the changeup (two-seamer? I’m not convinced) Hernandez throws inside with some tidy arm-side run. 1-2.
The next pitch is an interesting one for Felix, a cutter on the outside corner. This is a relatively new offering from the King, a pitch he tried to throw for a called strike. He doesn’t go to this pitch very often but it is another bullet in the Royal Arsenal.
The final pitch is a changeup that Albert Pujols clearly did not expect, waving at the 55-foot offering the dirt. Nasty. Unfair. Mean.
By the time Albert came to the plate for his third at bat, Felix Hernandez is rolling. Though his pitch count is rising, the Mariners ace has 8 strikeouts in just 4.1 innings pitched. Again, Hernandez starts the sequence with a slider, this one in a much better location than the previous attempt. Pujols manages to make contact but can only foul the pitch to the left side.
Ahead 0-1, Felix goes to the changeup, which Pujols swings over because lol. Perfectly executed pitch in a good spot, as Felix went with the fastball in his previous 0-1 encounter. In the driver’s seat with the count 0-2, Felix changes the eye level on Pujols with an elevated fastball which Pujols gamely fouls back.
Hernandez and Olivo go for the kill, throwing a slider down and away. To his eternal credit, Pujols doesn’t bite, watching the pitch go by for ball one. Albert Pujols: pretty good in his own right. Felix goes back to the change up under the hands but misses again, evening the count at 2-2.
If you are Albert Pujols in this situation, what can you possibly think is coming? Curveball for the swing-and-miss like in the first at bat? Changeup in the dirt for the swing-and-miss, like the second at bat?
Felix comes with the curve again. It stays up in the zone a little but Pujols is a little out in front, fouling the pitch off. Whew, you survived, Albert. But now what? Will he double up on the curve? Come with that change?
Nope. Fastball. Basically right down the middle. Which seems entirely unfair, because it is.
Wowowowow. It isn’t often you see a good hitter — great, really — get completely fooled. By a fastball, thrown right down the middle of the plate. Pujols gave up on the pitch, thinking it was at best another slider off the plate or, at worst, somehow going to be a ball. No. Chance. Turns out having four plus pitches you can throw for strikes gives you an advantage. Who knew?!
Felix Hernandez already has one Cy Young award to his name and is certainly worthy of accolades here in 2012. He is still just 26-years old, as you well know. He is nasty, filthy and completely unfair when he is on his game. Mariners fans don’t have too much to cheer about but cries of “Happy Felix Day!” every fifth game ease the pain of AL West irrelevance.