Commentary

Home run-proficient, strikeout-resistant Pujols

Originally Published: September 1, 2007
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Albert Pujols is renowned for his three Silver Slugger Awards and ability to haunt Brad Lidge's dreams, but he's just a well-rounded guy at heart. Last year, Pujols won his first Gold Glove and advanced from first to third base on a single more than any player in the majors. We kid you not.

There's just one facet of the game in which Pujols is deficient: trudging back to the dugout with a forlorn look on his face.

Some players are poor losers, and Pujols is a bad whiffer. Whether the transgression is called or swinging barely matters, he has an almost pathological distaste for strike three.

"I get pissed when I strike out," Pujols said. "I get mad. At least if you put the ball in play, a guy can make an error, and you give your teammates a chance to drive you in and score a run. When you strike out, you don't even give yourself a chance."

But when it comes to strikeouts, Pujols resides in a humiliation-free zone.

In an age of breeze-generating swing-and-missers, Pujols is a rare breed of player -- an extra-base machine who inflicts punishment without deleterious side effects. Over seven major league seasons, he has amassed 573 walks and only 449 strikeouts on his way to a .622 career slugging percentage.

Last year, Pujols hit 49 homers and struck out 50 times, nearly joining Johnny Mize of the 1947 New York Giants, the only player in history to hit 50 homers with fewer than 50 whiffs in a season.

30 HOME RUNS/70 STRIKEOUTS
Hank Aaron 10 times
Lou Gehrig 9
Ted Williams 8
Mel Ott 8
Joe DiMaggio 7
Barry Bonds 6
Stan Musial 6
Albert Pujols 5
Gary Sheffield 5
Willie Mays 5
Although Pujols won't match that impressive performance this season, he is a virtual lock to finish with more than 30 homers and fewer than 70 strikeouts for the sixth time. That achievement will move him one notch further up a list dotted with such baseball nobility as Hank Aaron, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams and Willie Mays.

The concept of the contact-making slugger seems as far-fetched as baseball without Scott Boras, but there actually was a time when run producers weren't inclined to wrench their backs in pursuit of the big fly. Babe Ruth, Mel Ott, Stan Musial, Carl Yastrzemski and Aaron are among the Hall of Famers who played two decades or more without a 100-strikeout season.

Cincinnati's Adam Dunn, in contrast, had 105 strikeouts at the All-Star break this season.

Pujols is sufficiently well-versed in baseball history to know that Joe DiMaggio hit 361 homers and struck out 369 times in the big leagues.

"Unbelievable," Pujols said, shaking his head. "Those are sick numbers."

Before Reggie Jackson and Dave Kingman arrived on the scene, Cincinnati first baseman Ted Kluszewski proved that muscle-bound sluggers could be adept at making contact. Kluszewski, whose arms were so huge he couldn't find sleeves to accommodate them, hit 49 homers and struck out 35 times in his best season with the Reds in 1954.

"He had a short stroke and a great eye," said Joe Nuxhall, longtime Reds broadcaster and a former Kluszewski teammate. "He hit two irons instead of nine irons. If Ted had more loft on the ball, God knows how many homers he would have hit."

Although Bobby Bonds and Rob Deer posted strikeout numbers that have withstood the test of time, 13 of the 20 most prolific strikeout seasons have come since 2000. Dunn, Jim Thome, Preston Wilson and Jose Hernandez are among the notable offenders.

Any list of sluggers at the opposite end of the spectrum would have to include Pujols, Barry Bonds, Gary Sheffield, Vladimir Guerrero and Carlos Lee. Bonds' only 100-whiff season came when he was a rookie with Pittsburgh in 1986. None of the other four has ever topped 100 strikeouts.

St. Louis shortstop David Eckstein, who has played with both Guerrero and Pujols, noted that they couldn't be less similar in style. Pujols hits from a wide base, works a lot of deep counts and takes the same methodical approach whether he's ahead 3-0 or behind 0-2.

Remember Steve Kemp? Every time he swung, he had to go pick up his hat somewhere because he was swinging so hard. These guys don't have to do that.

--Wally Joyner

Guerrero, in contrast, was born to hack. This year, he is seeing an average of 3.22 pitches per plate appearances, the fewest of any major league regular except Baltimore's Corey Patterson. Guerrero swings at balls in the dirt and over his head, and still manages to hit them with authority.

"His arm span is outrageous," Eckstein said. "He'll hit balls six inches off the dish -- out, in, up and down. With his ability to extend those arms, it makes pitches that might be horrible to other hitters right in his wheelhouse."

We surveyed several hitters and hitting instructors, and they said Pujols, Bonds et al are linked by uncanny strength and hand-eye coordination. They are, in the words of San Diego hitting coach Wally Joyner, "blessed" with an ability to send the ball a long way without maximum effort.

If a power hitter can drive the ball 380 feet over the fence by swinging at 80 percent capacity, rather than cranking it up to 100 percent in an effort to send the ball 450 feet, he is bound to be more successful at making contact.

"Remember Steve Kemp?" Joyner said. "Every time he swung, he had to go pick up his hat somewhere because he was swinging so hard. These guys don't have to do that."

Sheffield, with his pronounced waggle and violent follow-through, seems to contradict that statement. But as Phillies manager Charlie Manuel points out, Sheffield is a different hitter with two strikes. He is more under control and conscious of hitting the ball to the opposite field. The same goes for Lee.

Houston's Lance Berkman, a career .300 hitter despite six 100-strikeout seasons, thinks contact-making sluggers are distinguished by their otherworldly plate coverage. Berkman has seen Lee do damage on balls that others can only dream of hitting.

"When you can handle a wider variety of pitches than the average hitter, you're going to strike out less," Berkman said. "When a guy makes a mistake in the zone and I can handle it, that's when I have to capitalize. But there are plenty of spots where they can throw it and I can't hit it. That's why I strike out a lot."

Don't feel too sorry for Berkman. He has made four All-Star teams and hit 40 homers twice. But he still is not immune to being awestruck over the skill sets of certain peers.

"I think some of it has to do with biomechanics, and some of it is quick-twitch muscles," Berkman said. "If you throw a fastball above the belt to Albert or Vlad, they'll kill it. They're just quicker than anybody else. Sheffield and Bonds are the same way. They're quicker."

Every once in a while, Pujols wishes he weren't so blessed. During a 13-3 loss at Philadelphia in July, Pujols swung at a two-strike pitch with the bases loaded and bounced into a game-ending double play.

"Sometimes hand-eye coordination takes over, and it's pretty tough not to put the ball in play," Pujols said.

It's a nice problem to have, if you can swing it.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer