By Jason Wojciechowski on June 29, 2009 at 7:15 PM
Will Leitch wrote this a couple of weeks ago, and the part that caught my eye was:
The Cardinals are currently a game out of first in the NL Central, but that's far from some grand accomplishment. Their offense has imploded -- the one Cardinals win against Cleveland over the weekend was a 3-1 victory behind two Pujols solo homers and a wild pitch -- and Pujols has zero protection in the lineup. . . . Pujols is walking more, yes, but more to the point, he's straining to make something happen, swinging at pitches outside the strike zone and overextending himself in a way that, say, Barry Bonds was just patient and blase enough never to do. When you're constantly batting with no one on base, and you're bored with walking, you start swinging at anything. Only pitchers as sloppy as Tomo Ohka are throwing him strikes.
I had a sneaking suspicion that this might be completely wrong. Luckily, the remarkable Fangraphs exists.
First, Pujols is walking more: 18.6% walk rate this year compared to 16.6% last year. I question whether this is his lineup or the continued evolution of Pujols, though: remarkably, Pujols has increased his walk rate every single year he's been in the league. He started out at 10.5% in 2001 and has seen a jump of at least 0.2% each year. So while the walk rate is higher, the point isn't really proven.
Where Fangraphs really gets useful is in its PitchFX data, and that data tells us that Pujols is swinging at more pitches out of the zone this year than last, but it's 21.9% vs. 21.6%. That's not what I'd guess would stand up as a statistically significant difference. Much more significant, and this may be what Leitch's eyes are telling him, is that Pujols is swinging at more pitches in the zone: 63.8% last year, up to 68.7% this year.
So while there's not nothing to what Leitch says, it's not as dramatic as all that either. I'll count this as another nail in the coffin of the myth of lineup protection.