On Tuesday night, in the bottom of the ninth inning, Jim Johnson found himself in a spot of trouble. That, in and of itself, is nothing remarkable for the closer of the Baltimore Orioles, who has recently found himself on shakier ground than in his rock-solid 2012; so it goes with relief pitchers. Handed a 3-1 lead over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim going into the ninth inning and the chance for his 23rd save of the year, Johnson had induced a pop-out from ninth-place hitter Peter Bourjos and a weak groundout from Mike Trout handled niftily by Manny Machado, then got two strikes on Josh Hamilton before allowing him to double to right field.
Which brought Albert Pujols to the plate, with a man on second and two away. Three-time National League MVP Albert Pujols; nine-time All Star Albert Pujols; the man who ended Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS and the Legend of Brad Lidge with one swing of the bat. Here's what Orioles color man Jim Palmer, one of the best of the business, had to say about a man with a career OPS of 1.013 coming to plate: "It's not like you can pitch around him, with [Mark] Trumbo on deck."
And you know what the crazy thing is? Palmer was right.
That's how far Albert Pujols has fallen in the year-and-change since moving from St. Louis to Orange County. Last year, he was a victim of a very poor start to the season which colored everyone's perception the rest of the way, but come June he hit his stride, with a .941 OPS the rest of the way. This June has also been his best month of the year so far, but whereas last June he hit .326/.409/.568 (.977), this June has only seen him hit .262/.327/.548 (.874) so far. A slugging-heavy .874 OPS is a nice thing to have from a lot of players, even if only over half a month of plate appearances, but Pujols isn't one of them. When the Angels signed him to a ten-year, $240 million contract in the 2011 offseason, they clearly expected more production out of the future Hall-of-Famer -- though even at the time it was highly likely that the back end of the contract would end up paying for the production at the front end, as well as the premium for Pujols being a free agent.
Pujols, 33, is a future Hall of Famer (with the standard boilerplate disclaimer about what happens to his chances if PED use is ever alleged), but not all future Hall of Famers are created equally. Instead of having a sustained mastery of the league for 15 to 20 years like a Ted Williams or Barry Bonds, it's entirely possible that when the book is closed on Albert Pujols's career, his case will look a lot more like Jimmie Foxx's than anyone in the Angels organization would currently like to admit.
Foxx, of course, was the phenomenal first/third baseman of the Philadelphia Athletics and then later the Boston Red Sox from 1927 to 1941, when he turned 33 and, after an uncharacteristically underpowered 1941, had almost all of his baseball skill desert him. He didn't play in 1943, saw use in 1944 with the Chicago Cubs mostly off the bench, and ended his career in 1945 back in the city where it started, this time with the Philadelphia Phillies. Probably the most accepted theory on why Foxx went from "the right-handed Babe Ruth" to out of the league so quickly is that severe sinus problems he developed after taking a baseball to the head in 1935 sapped his ability to perform. A freak injury, yes, but an injury still, and those make all the difference when talking about how a player ages into his thirties.
Luckily Pujols hasn't taken a nasty beanball the way Foxx has, but he does have a fairly well known chronic injury of his own: plantar fasciitis in his left foot. At the beginning of the season, Abby Sims at CBSNewYork wrote a very helpful rundown of what that injury is, what it does to an athlete, and how to treat it; if you haven't already, you should read it. The essential takeaway is that unless Pujols is willing to undergo a major surgery to lengthen the fascia -- which may or may not provide significant relief, and certainly isn't a guaranteed fix -- there's nothing really to do with the condition but work around it. While a 15-day DL trip would be nice to get the foot some rest, simple "rest" doesn't fix the condition, and the Angels can hardly afford to lose even an .800 OPS bat in their lineup at this point in the season.
The actual solution, insofar as there is an actual solution to a chronic injury of this sort, may be for Pujols to get said surgery in the offseason and continue to rehab and work on stretching the fascia as an everyday DH for part of next year. That's obviously a decision for Pujols and the team medical staff to make based on his unique situation, not for us to diagnose from the internet.
The plantar fasciitis also doesn't do much to explain why Pujols has suddenly fallen off against left-handed pitching. For his career, Pujols has a 1.057 OPS in over 2000 plate appearances against lefties, but he is only hitting .190/.273/.362 (.635) so far in the 2013 season. What might do a decent job of explaining that is the minuscule sample size of only 66 plate appearances. So Angels fans are hoping this is small sample size variance rather than a new hole in their superstar's approach, and this hope will probably be borne out. And speaking of small sample sizes, Pujols has been very hot lately -- .304/.393/.609 over the past seven days -- so perhaps his 2013 is following the same script from last season after all, just with a less dismal March.
Pujols's injury problems might be the sort that never go away, or are mitigated by making him the designated hitter; they're not the kind that can be dealt with by simply putting him on the DL and hoping the condition gets better. At this age and at this stage of Pujols's career, the injury and performance could be inexorably connected: He might never get better. And while it's doubtful that he'll fall off as quickly as Jimmie Foxx did on the Chicago Cubs, well, the Cubs never gave Foxx a ten-year contract. They just cut him.