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Albert Pujols: Are We Seeing the Beginning of His Decline?

I was listening to the Hot Stove show on MLB Radio on Sunday afternoon and a Cardinals fan called in to discuss Albert Pujols. It was his opinion that age and injuries are catching up to Pujols, and that he didn't want the team to sign him to a long term contract. He talked about watching a tape of the 2006 World Series where he saw Pujols score from second base on a single, and there is now way he scores from second base now. He added that Pujols is much thicker in his midsection and in his legs, now that age and injuries are catching up to him. Age and injuries catch up to baseball players no matter what their name is: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Derek Jeter or Albert Pujols. At some point in his career, Pujols will disappoint his fans and fantasy owners. Could it be in 2012?

I have to agree with that Cardinals fan regarding Pujols being bigger than I expected, as I was thinking the same thing watching the NLDS, NLCS and World Series. He is not the base runner we saw just a few years ago, and he appears to be pretty tentative on the bases as well.

When working on my early 2012 First Base Rankings, I was stunned at what I found when analyzing his player page over at FanGraphs. More on what I found after the jump:

When one looks at Pujols 2011 stats, you see a hitter who put up a very good season at the plate, hitting .299-.366-.541 with 37 HRs, 99 RBI, 105 runs and 9 stolen bases. He struck out just 58 times and walked 61 times. There are many fantasy writers and owners who still think Pujols is the #1 pick in 2012, or at least the #1 first baseman, but I am here to make you think twice about Pujols.

His 2011 season was very good on the surface, but when evaluating hitters for 2012, you need to look at more than one year of data. You need to see if the hitter is regressing in any fantasy or sabremetric stats. Then you need to make a decision whether the hitter will improve or regress in 2012 compared to his 2011 performance. When comparing multiple years of data, fantasy owners must decide whether a trend is forming or not, and determine the reasons for the trend. If you compare Pujols 2011 stats to previous years, you see a disturbing trend that fantasy owners should consider come draft day in 2012.

Here are his triple slash stats, HR, 2B, RBI, runs, SBs, strikeouts and walks over the last 3 years:

2009- .327-.443-.658, 47 HRs, 45 doubles, 135 RBI, 124 runs, 16 SBs, 64 strikeouts, 115 walks

2010- .312-.414-.596, 42 HRs, 39 doubles, 118 RBI, 115 runs, 14 SBs, 76 strikeouts, 103 walks

2011- .299-.366-.541, 37 HRs, 29 doubles, 99 RBI, 105 runs, 9 SBs, 58 strikeouts, 61 walks

It is very easy to see the drop in his stats, pretty much across the board. Almost every one of his stats are down over the last two years. His batting average is down, as is his OBP and slugging percentage. HIs power stats-home runs and doubles, RBI, runs and stolen bases are all down as well. His stats are slowly regressing, but if they regress anymore in 2012, fantasy owners will be very disappointed.

To me, this trend is telling me Pujols may not be able to live up to the production fantasy owners have grown use to in the past. Actually, I would not be surprised to see his stats continue their downward trend in 2012. Pujols is not the only superstar to see age and injuries catch up to him. Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez disappointed fantasy owners in 2011 as he missed time due to injury and had his worst power year of his career.

One other area of concern is that pitchers aren't afraid to pitch to him any more. Pitchers are throwing first pitch strikes to him 52.8% of his plate appearances, the highest since 2004. Pujols is also swinging at more pitches outside the zone than ever before. His swings at pitches outside the zone have been trending higher every year since 2004 where he swung at just 15.7% of pitches outside the zone vs 31.5% in 2011. I saw this firsthand while watching the World Series last week.

Another telling stat is the big drop in walks in 2011. His walks dropped from 103 to 61 this season while his walk rate (BB%) dropped from 14.7% to 9.4%, the worst of his career. Alex Rodriguez saw a similar drop in his walk rate in 2010-from 15% in 2009 to just under 10% in 2010, and his power fell off a cliff in 2011.

Maybe I am reaching to my conclusions here. Maybe not. But, to expect Pujols to continue to perform at an elite level as he gets older is not a good idea. I don't recommend drafting Pujols if guys like Miguel Cabrera and Adrian Gonzalez are still on the board. The injury risk with drafting Pujols is not worth the risk of taking him before these two first baseman, among others.