Saturday, August 15, 2015

Pujols, Teixeira Turning Back the Clock

Teixeira takes another pitcher deep (NY Times)
One of the best sluggers in the American League this year is 35 year-old first baseman who has been hobbled by injuries in recent seasons, injuries that have cut into his into playing time, hampered his power, and left many to wonder just how effective he could be going forward. Recently his giant contract has been deemed among the worst in baseball, but this year he's been worth every penny. He's re-asserted himself as a middle of the order force on a contending team, socking home runs and driving in runs with regularity. Last month he was an All-Star for the first time in years, and now he's adding to his MVP case as the stretch run looms.

I'm talking about Mark Teixeira. I am also talking about Albert Pujols.

Both players, you see, are enjoying unexpected resurgences at the plate. What's funny is that they're going about it different ways. Pujols is being more aggressive than ever before, continuing a trend of declining walk rates since 2009. This is common in older hitters, who start their swing earlier to counteract their diminishing bat speed. He's also tinkered with his batting stance, adjusting his leg kick and load position. His is a classic case of an older player taking on the role of mad scientist, feverishly trying anything and everything in the hopes of recapturing his old glory.

Teixeira, on the other hand, wanted to get back to doing what he's always done: take walks and hit the ball a long way. Rather than experiment with a new approach, he simply sought to return to his old one. His only change was what he put on his plate, which no longer includes sugar and gluten (how somebody can swear off one, let alone both, is incomprehensible to me). Contrary to Pujols, Tex became even more patient. Granted, he's always been a disciplined hitter, but it's noteworthy that his walk rate hasn't been this high since 2010. Given how far the league walk rate has fallen since then, that's really quite impressive.

Once among the best pure hitters in the game, they're essentially all-or-nothing sluggers at this point. Their averages, which used to top .300 with regularity, have settled into the .250s. Pujols is striking out more than at any point since his rookie season, and Teixeira's taken plenty of whiffs, too.

It's the return of their power, however, that's made them elite offensive performers again. Both are sitting on 30 home runs, a benchmark neither has surpassed since 2011 (Pujols hit 30 on the nose in 2012--his first year with the Angels). They're tied for fifth-most in the American League, four behind ML-leader Nelson Cruz. Pujols is sporting his best Isolated Power since 2010, while Teixeira is putting up the best ISO of his career. Pujols is in the league's top-10 for total bases, whereas Tex is in the top-10 for slugging percentage and extra base hits.
Pujols hasn't hit this well since his Cardinals days (ESPN)
Their coinciding comebacks is just the latest parallel in their exceptional careers, which have mirrored each other at every turn. Both were born in 1980, came up in the early 2000s, and raked from the start. They were extremely durable. They hit for good power and high averages. They became multi-Gold Glove winning first basemen.

Both were absolute monsters through around 2009 or so, then they signed huge contracts with new teams and almost immediately began going downhill. Part of it was age, part of it was injuries, and part of it was the league-wide decline in offense that's been happening since these guys turned 30. They both had some years where they got off to absolutely terrible starts, and as you get older those slumps last longer and it becomes harder and harder to come back from them.

They both bottomed out in 2013, when injuries limited Pujols to 99 games and Teixeira to all of 15. They bounced back some in 2014, but nowhere near their pre-injury levels. As they crept into their mid-30s and injuries kept piling up, their careers seemed to be heading south.

Then, just when everyone had written them off, they came roaring back. Fully healthy for the first time in years, they've been able to inflict some serious damage on AL pitching this summer. It was a sight to see both at the Midsummer Classic, something neither had been a part of in half a decade. They looked like dinosaurs alongside National League representatives Paul Goldschmidt and Anthony Rizzo, both of whom are nearly a decade younger.

But every All-Star Game is like that, a bizarre juxtaposition of fading stars and bright up-and-comers. Pujols and Teixeira might not have looked like they belonged, but their numbers said otherwise.

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