MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Los Angeles Angels

Albert Pujols is throwing it all the way back to the late 2000s. The Angels’ first baseman leads the major leagues with six home runs and is hitting .280/.349/.587 in his first 18 games of 2014. His current 167 OPS+ is his best mark since the 2010 season, the last time the 34-year-old reached the All-Star game.

Whenever a hitter of Pujols’s former stature manages an elite stretch like this one, particularly early in a season, it’s worth taking note. It’s especially worth noting when the player in question is healthy for the first time in years. Pujols missed roughly the final third of the 2013 season in order to finally undergo surgery on his right knee as well as rest the plantar fasciitis that has chronically bothered his left heel.

Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus documented Pujols’s issues last season in a column aptly titled “The Week In Albert Pujols Playing Through Pain.” Pujols was never a burner, but he ran in an extremely pained manner in 2013. The issues were particularly apparent on this play, a groundout on April 13. Watch the instability in his front leg in particular:

PujolsOut3

“I’m dying,” Pujols told the Los Angeles Times eight days later. “It’s hurting real bad.”

Fast forward to 2014, and even if Pujols isn’t exactly looking spry, his motions are a bit smoother. Here’s Pujols scoring on a short single in Cactus League play:

MLB.com has yet to make a similar play from Saturday’s game embeddable, but here’s Pujols running well and scoring from second on a single to right field in a regular season situation. He even stole a base last night on a botched hit and run! Pujols still isn’t fast, but at least his plodding looks less painful.

Pujols talked during Spring Training about the obvious pain he was feeling. He said he was much healthier — best shape of his life and all that — and added “You’re going to see it when I run around and move around.” More importantly, Pujols added, “I can’t recall a moment in the offseason where I thought, ‘Oh, that didn’t feel good.’ Everything has felt great — hitting, running the treadmill, doing agility, side to side, jump rope.”

On Friday, Pujols crushed a three-run home run to left field off Tigers reliever Luke Putkonen:

This is a pitch Pujols has made his living hitting for a home run. Putkonen badly missed his target, and the 91 MPH fastball leaked right over the inner half of the plate. Note particularly on the replay how Pujols is able use his front leg as a ballast. Pujols generates power by transferring his weight almost entirely from the back leg to the front leg. Rather than buckling like it did in 2013, that leg is now able to hold the considerable energy Pujols generates with his swing.

For right-handed batters like Pujols, the front leg is the left leg, the same leg that had suffered from plantar fasciitis for the past few years. The pain was significant enough to turn him into another Jose Molina on the basepaths, and it almost certainly impacted his ability to properly plant on his left foot. With a left leg unable to hold the weight necessary for Pujols to hit with his typical power, it should be unsurprising his isolated power plummeted over the past few seasons:

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(via FanGraphs)

Pujols still has elite contact skills, as he has struck out just seven times in 83 plate appearances this year and struck out just 12.4 percent of the time in 2013. For now, it appears that Pujols’s power has returned with his health. At age 34 and banged up over the past few seasons, there are no guarantees his health and rediscovered power will remain.

But the rejuvenated Pujols the Angels have seen in April offers hope. The Angels are just 8-10 this season and may be destined for another third place finish, but their plus-13 run differential ranks second in the American League, and only the White Sox have scored more runs than the Angels’ 97. When the Angels put Pujols, the best player of the previous decade, in the same lineup as Mike Trout, the best player of the current decade, the imagination ran wild with the possibilities. With Pujols finally healthy, those dreams can finally turn to reality on the field.