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ESPN: Pujols no longer baseball's best hitter

Is former Cardinals' slugger Albert Pujols' 19-game homerless streak and .222 batting average just a fluke?

ESPN doesn't think so. According to a new on-line story about Pujols' predicament, the three-time National League Most Valuable Player is showing plenty of signs that he's steadily losing his skills. While he's probably far better still than a .222 hitter and he's almost certainly got a lot more home runs in him. But, according to the piece, it seems unlikely that the Angels will ever see the .340-hitting, 40-homer-smacking Pujols that St. Louis fans enjoyed in his prime.

According to the ESPN Story:

Of course, Pujols isn't a machine. He's human and he's now 32 years old. In 2008, he posted a career-high 1.114 OPS. Since then, his batting averages have fallen from .357 to .327 to .312 to .299. His on-base percentage has dropped from .462 to .443 to .414 to .366. His slugging percentage declined from .653 to .541 last season.

That's a strong trend -- three consecutive seasons in which he wasn't quite as good as the year before, with 2011 in particular being a noticeable decline. Was he still a terrific hitter? Yes, he ranked 10th in the NL in OPS, 11th in wOBA. But the Angels didn't sign him to be the eighth or 10th or 11th best hitter in the league. They signed him to be the best, even at 32. And Pujols still hit 37 home runs last season, and that was despite missing 15 games with a fractured forearm. So you factor in that injury, a slow start to the season (.245 in April, two home runs in May), a career-low .277 average on balls in play and maybe it was just one of those seasons.

I've mentioned lately that I sense Pujols is starting his swing earlier, potentially to make up for decreasing bat speed. And the result is that he's making himself more vulnerable to bad pitches. When he was a younger player, Pujols' plate discipline was incredible. But over the last two or three years, he is much more likely to swing at pitches out of the strike zone. As his contract neared its expiration, a lot of foks thought Pujols was trying to do too much. But maybe what we're really witnessing is his evolution from the quickest bat in baseball to a mistake hitter who can't get around on a good fastball like he used to.

Pitchers seem to certainly think that Albert is more vulnerable. They don't pitch around him nearly as much as they used to.

According to ESPN:

This is a continuation of a trend over the past few seasons. As Sam Miller pointed on the other day on Baseball Prospectus, Pujols is simply swinging more:

2009: 40 percent

2010: 41 percent

2011, first half: 41 percent

2011, second half: 49 percent

2012: 47 percent

In 2009 and 2010, Pujols chased just 24 percent of pitches out of the strike zone. That increased to 30 percent in 2011 and 34 percent so far in 2012 -- above the overall average of 28 percent.

The popular perception was that Pujols was going to have two or three or four more great years in him before he started to decline. But maybe the end is closer than anyone thought.