One day in spring training Angels manager Mike Scioscia sat behind his desk and laid out his plan for handling the new anchor of his lineup, Albert Pujols. "My goal," Scioscia said, "is to have Albert in the lineup 162 times."
Unlike Tony La Russa, Pujols's manager for 11 seasons in St. Louis, Scioscia has the luxury of the designated hitter spot, a way to get Pujols's bat in the lineup even when he needs a rest from first base or has a minor ailment. But there was one worst-case scenario that Scioscia—or anybody else in baseball for that matter—never contemplated: that Pujols would not hit. And so it was that just 27 games into Pujols's 10-year, $240 million contract, Scioscia's plan broke down. Pujols was benched last Saturday, a night after he was booed in Anaheim.
Yes, Pujols has been that bad. The greatest hitter of our generation was hitting .194 when Scioscia sat him down. It's the equivalent of Itzhak Perlman's playing elementary school recital quality—for a month straight. There are slumps. There are slow starts. And there is this—the Machine, broken.
It took 111 at bats for Pujols to hit his first home run with the Angels, a two-run shot on Sunday off Toronto righthander Drew Hutchison. After teammate Torii Hunter arranged for the prank of an empty dugout to greet Pujols, the crowd at Angel Stadium wanted a curtain call from Pujols, whom they booed earlier in the game when he whiffed. Pujols declined the invitation. "I stay focused for nine innings," he said. "Until you get that 27th out, you can't lose that focus."
Somebody asked Pujols whether he had grown "frustrated" by the slump. The word stopped him, and the room seemed to grow 20° colder. "No, never," he said. "This game is about making adjustments and being patient.... Every player, whether a position player or a pitcher, goes through it where sometimes you try to do too much."
The best explanation for what has happened to Pujols is that he fell through the trapdoor of high-profile free agency. The danger underneath the millions of dollars, the billboards and the face-of-the-franchise status is the pressure to live up to all of it right away. In recent seasons Mark Teixeira, Adam Dunn, Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth all struggled at first after changing teams as free agents.
Pujols and Scioscia have tried to minimize the slump by playing up his number of hard-hit outs. Yet the truth is that Pujols has looked as unsteady as the numbers suggest. He is taking strikes early in counts (he had one first-pitch hit through Sunday) and swinging at balls later in counts; he is swinging at more pitches than at any time in his career (47%), taking fewer walks and rolling over outside pitches (31 groundouts to the left side of the field). After 28 games he was still waiting for his first opposite-field hit.
There is still enough time for Pujols to raise his average to .300. He can hit home runs the rest of the season at the worst rate of his pre-2012 career and still end up with 29. But the chances of a monster season are now remote. The Angels are clinging to the hope that one swing against Hutchison changed everything. "It can be as simple as one swing," Hunter says. "It could be a bloop. A bunt single. Now he's got one [home run], so that changes the mind-set right there."
It's been an odd year in baseball. Mariano Rivera is hurt; the Orioles and the Nationals are winning; the Red Sox have no home field advantage; the first complete game for Philip Humber was a perfecto; the Dodgers have stable ownership; Ozzie Guillen and Delmon Young have been suspended over their off-field actions. But strangest of all has been watching the greatest hitter of this generation slump so badly for so long.