Says Pujols, "The high fastball, when I hit it, it's like, Wow, I didn't even feel it. Why? Because all I did was throw the hands. Sometimes in BP I try to hit the ball as far as I can, and most of the time it's impossible. I can't do it. But when I take a real nice easy swing toward the ball? Man, the ball just goes."
His swing is beautiful in its simplicity. Nothing wasted. All the choreography of Julio Cesar Franco has been rooted out over time. (The leg kick, for one, was pruned in 1999.) Williams's Science of Hitting has begotten Pujols's Physics of Hitting. It is the knockout jab of a boxer or the cascade of a waterfall: power delivered in a direct line.
It does not, however, always work this well.
When spring training began in 2011, Pujols cut off contract negotiations with the Cardinals. The club's last offer had been $198 million over nine years. The $22 million average annual value would not have ranked among the top 10 contracts in history, and it would have placed Pujols third among current first basemen, behind Ryan Howard ($25 million) and Mark Teixeira ($22.5 million). Pujols's preference was to remain in St. Louis, where he still has a home, but suddenly there was reason to doubt it would happen.
"I know that his dealings with the organization affected him a lot," Rojas says. "It's something that didn't make him feel very good.... He didn't want to talk much about it. He would change the subject. But he was also very respectful of the organization, very professional."
Mihlfeld remembered the 18-year-old Pujols of 1998, when the kid first showed up with Deidre, then his fiancée, at Maple Woods, where Mihlfeld was the baseball coach until he took a minor league job with the Dodgers three weeks later. "He was a happy kid all the time—laughing, joking, playing pranks once in a while," Mihlfeld says. "Over the years he has hardened. He takes everything personal. He cares what people think. Last year was a tough time for him."
Thirty-one games into the season, Pujols was batting .233 and had hit into more double plays (10) than he had hit home runs (seven). The contract issue, he said, wasn't the problem. It was his swing. "I can't even do it," he says in February after trying to mimic his swing from last April. "I can't believe I was hitting like that. I'll show you exactly what I mean on my computer."
The next week, in camp with the Angels in Tempe, Pujols grabs his laptop and heads to a picnic bench outside the clubhouse. He has videos of all of his major league at bats, most of them from multiple angles. He can summon them by year and subdivide them by results. He starts clicking. "I can go to '09," he says, "and watch all of my extra-base hits or home runs. See? See the head of the bat, how straight it is? The back side elbow is up, the front elbow is down."
He closes the 2009 file and opens the one from last season, beginning with April. The difference is striking. Pujols's front elbow is higher than the back, causing the head of the bat to be flat, not straight, as he reaches the loaded position, the moment before the swing comes forward.
"See how flat I get it? My bat angle? See how flat it's getting?" He grows more agitated with every 2011 swing he views, even the ones that produced home runs. "And look at my knee."