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Albert Pujols' Stride:
It's Baaack...

...And Now It's Not: 4/17/2013 Update

Albert Pujols had an unprecedentedly -- for him at least -- poor first two months of the season. Then he quickly turned things around and was having a quite Pujolsian June until he broke his arm (and I mean arm, not wrist).

Since people are understandably interested in what Albert Pujols' April and May performance, and June turn-around, say about his future prospects, I thought I'd give my two cents about what happened and why, the small role I might have played in the process, and where Pujols is likely to go from here.

The Secrets of Albert Pujols' Swing

For those who want to develop a comprehensive understanding of Albert Pujols' swing, I have put together a new eBook entitled The Secrets of Albert Pujols' Swing. It contains 650+ pages of photos and descriptions and is on SALE for just $19.95 from now until Opening Day, 2014.

Hitting 101: Basic Concepts

In order to understand why Albert Pujols struggled during April and May, and was able to bounce back so quickly in June, you first have to understand a number of geeky, semi-technical things about the swing, the role of the stride, and hitting in general. It's going to take me a couple of minutes to tie this back to Albert Pujols' swing, but please be patient.

This is important.

Heel Plant

In a good swing, the planting of the front heel -- and I mean the planting of the heel of the front foot and not just the first contact of the front foot with the ground -- is the thing that starts the rotation of the hips.

Let me say that again.

The planting of the front heel initiates the swing.

I'm not sure why that is, but it's true of both hitting and pitching and presumably has something to do with walking. Basically, the planting of the front heel triggers a series of events farther up in the hips and the core that rotate the hips (and then the shoulders).

Stretch Shortening Cycle

In order to maximize the power output of a muscle, it is best to stretch that muscle just before you contract it. That can boost the power output of the muscle by 10 or more percent and is the reason why many athletic movements involve a counter-movement where the athlete first moves in the opposite direction of their target direction. Examples of athletic activities with counter-movements include the golf swing and the basketball jump shot.

Timing

In order to consistently hit 90+ MPH pitching, hitters have to start their swings early enough to be able to get everything done in time in order to hit the ball squarely, but not too early.

If the batter starts their swing too late, then they will not be able to catch up to the fastball and will be late and swing behind it; the bat will be passing through the hitting zone at the moment the ball is entering the catcher's mitt. Similarly, if the batter starts their swing too early, then they will be out in front of the pitch and the bat will pass through the hitting zone before the ball is even there.

However, in order to be able to hit the pitcher's fastest pitch, and because it is easier to slow a swing down than it is to speed a swing up, good hitters start their swing in time to handle the fastest pitch that they think they will see from a pitcher.

Adjustability

In order to make life as hard as possible on the hitter, good pitchers do not throw every pitch at the same speed. Instead, good pitchers throw different pitches at different speeds, and the best ones throw their pitches in such a way that it's not immediately obvious whether the pitch is a fastball or an off-speed pitch out of the hand.

They do this because, if they can fool the hitter into thinking that a pitch is a fastball when it is actually a change-up, then they will force the hitter to swing with their arms and not with their whole body (and in particular their hips). As I explain in my piece on Rotational Hitting, an arm-y swing is much less powerful than a swing that is driven by the hips and the core.

As a result, good hitters have to develop a way of adjusting to the speed of the pitch and, most importantly, delaying the planting of their front heel if they get an off-speed pitch (e.g. a breaking ball or a change-up).

Different hitters do this differently, but most do it by incorporating a number of places that they can briefly pause during their leg lift and their stride and make a timing adjustment to an off-speed pitch.[1]

Get The Front Foot Down Early?
No, Not Really.

One of the most common pieces of hitting advice is to get your front foot down early. The problem is that getting the front foot down too early can hurt a hitter's power by keeping them from taking advantage of the Stretch Shortening Cycle. If a hitter gets their front foot down early, and then gets an off-speed pitch and has to make a timing adjustment, then all they can do is sit there and wait until it's time to fire their hips. The longer the pause between the planting of the front heel and the firing of the hips, the less the hitter will be able to take advantage of the Stretch Shortening Cycle. The result is a swing that will "work," but -- and remember this for later -- getting the front foot down to early can rob a hitter of power and turn home run power into warning track power. In truth, you want to get the front foot -- and really the front heel -- down right on time, and by that I mean the moment when you want to start rotating your hips and your shoulders.

Albert Pujols' Classic Stride

And what exactly does this have to do with Albert Pujols' swing, his stride, and his struggles during April and May of 2011? If you look at Albert Pujols' swing from circa 2005, you can see that he has -- or more accurately had, but I'll get to that in a second -- an effective adjustment mechanism built into his stride.

Albert Pujols Swing Video Clip

Albert Pujols
2005 NLCS Game 5
Small Timing Adjustment
60 Frames Per Second

Notice how, in the clip above, Albert Pujols internally rotates his front leg, points his front knee down, and sits and pauses on his front toe for 2 or 3 frames before he drops his front heel. That allows him to delay the start of his swing, not short-circuit the Stretch Shortening Cycle, and still hit an off-speed pitch -- in this case a hanging Brad Lidge slider in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS -- hard.

Albert Pujols Swing Video Clip

Albert Pujols
Circa 2005
Large Timing Adjustment
60 Frames Per Second

You can see the same thing in the clip above but to a larger degree, perhaps because the pitch was a change-up and not a faster off-speed pitch like a slider. Notice how Albert Pujols internally rotates his front leg, pauses on his front toe, and then pauses and holds that position for 7 or so frames before dropping his front heel and firing his hips.

Albert Pujols Swing Video Clip

Albert Pujols
May 20, 2010
Small Timing Adjustment
60 Frames Per Second

You can also see the same basic movement pattern in the clip above, which shows a swing from early 2010. Notice how he holds on his front toe for a few frames before dropping his heel and firing his hips.

What it Means

In each of these clips, what Albert Pujols is doing is reading the pitch and holding his hands back until the pitch is close enough for him to start his swing. He doesn't want to drop his front heel too soon, because doing that would short-circuit the Stretch Shortening Cycle and reduce his power.

Once Albert Pujols does decide to swing, he drops his front heel. That stretches the muscles of his core by rotating his hips slightly ahead of his shoulders. The muscles of his hips and core then fire, bringing his shoulders and the bat around with tremendous force.

Oh, it's Very Nice. Very Romantic.
We Change it All, Though.

I wasn't able to see the Cardinals play during 2011 Spring Training. However, I did manage to get tickets to the first few Cardinals games of the season. As I watched those games, I quickly noticed that Albert Pujols' stride was different.

Albert Pujols Swing Video Clip

Albert Pujols
4/2/2011
First Home Run of 2011
60 Frames Per Second

The clip above shows Albert Pujols' first home run of the year, hit on April 4, 2011. The thing to pay attention to is his stride; it is more conventional and is both higher and longer than his 2005 stride. Also, and more importantly, Albert Pujols doesn't rotate up onto the toe of his front foot any more and he doesn't pause on his front toe before launching his swing.

This wasn't just a one-time thing. If you look at other clips of Albert Pujols from April and May of 2011, you will see the same basic stride.

Albert Pujols Swing Video Clip

Albert Pujols
May 3, 2011
Ground Out to Second Base
60 Frames Per Second

Albert Pujols Swing Video Clip

Albert Pujols
May 3, 2011
Fly Out to Right Center Field Warning Track
60 Frames Per Second

The thing to notice is the same lack of internal rotation of the front leg, the height that his front foot gets off the ground, the lack of a pause on the front toe, and the immediate planting of his front heel.

What's Going On?

I have seen Albert Pujols use this same basic stride and leg lift before, but only during home run derbies when he is trying to put on a show and hit the ball out of the park.

As I point out in my overview piece on Albert Pujols' swing, Albert Pujols is forced to use a higher leg lift and a longer stride when he's trying to hit home runs in order to compensate for the reduced velocity -- and energy -- of batting practice pitches. Albert Pujols' bat speed is "only" a rather modest 87 MPH and not the 100+ MPH number that some hitters like Prince Fielder put up. As a result, he doesn't generate as much energy as some higher-bat speed hitters do.

That isn't an issue for Pujols during games because he is a fastball/hanging slider hitter and gets the energy he needs from the pitch itself. That allows him to swing slower than many hitters and enables him to hit for both power and average.

However, during home run derbies the ball isn't coming in as fast (70 MPH vs. 90+ MPH), and so Albert Pujols doesn't have as much energy to work with. He makes up for that energy deficit by using a higher leg lift and a longer stride, which enable him to generate more energy himself.

Like a slow pitch softball player, he's basically just timing out the pitch and smacking it. This works during batting practice because there are no change-ups in batting practice. If the BP pitcher does accidentally throw a change-up and fools him, it's no big deal.

So What?

What happened during April and May of 2011 is that Albert Pujols started using his home run derby swing as his game swing, probably in an effort to hit more home runs and increase the AAV of his next contract. That worked for a few games, but advance scouts, coaches, and pitchers quickly realized that Pujols wasn't able to adjust to off-speed pitches as well as he used to be able to.

Albert Pujols Swing Video Clip

Albert Pujols
May 3, 2011
Ground Out to Second Base
60 Frames Per Second

Albert Pujols wasn't able to adjust as well because, by not internally rotating his front knee and getting up onto the toe of his front foot, he was no longer able to delay the planting of his front heel.

Try it out for yourself.

Set up in an extra-wide, extra-low stance like Albert Pujols does, with your back hip well forward -- 12 to 18 inches -- of your back foot. Then pick up your front foot and try to just hang in the air for a second or so.

I know I can't do it.

Instead, the wide stance forces you to put your front foot down pretty much immediately after you pick it up.

Albert Pujols Swing Video Clip

Albert Pujols
May 3, 2011
Fly Out to Right Center Field Warning Track
60 Frames Per Second

The result is that, if Albert Pujols got an off-speed pitch, he would be unable to delay the planting of his front heel. Instead, his front heel would plant too early and he would have to just sit and wait for a few frames -- bleeding off energy and reducing the effectiveness of the Stretch Shortening Cycle with each passing frame -- until it was time to fire his hips. The result, like the clip above which shows a fly out to the Right Center Field Warning Track, would be a swing that wasn't all that it needed to be.

But What About the Fastball?

One of the things that you saw when Pujols was struggling was that he wasn't able to hit his bread and butter pitch -- the fastball -- nearly as well. That could be because, in an effort to improve his ability to handle off-speed pitching, he delayed the start of his swing. Of course, starting his swing later would hurt his ability to handle the fastball.

My Dinner with Andres

When the San Francisco Giants were in town from May 30 to June 2, I had an after-game meal with Andres Torres and a conversation about his stride. During the course of our conversation the topic of Albert Pujols' stride, how it had changed from 2010 to 2011, and Pujols' struggles came up.

 Andres is a big fan of Albert Pujols and his swing and knows it almost as well as I do. We spent some time talking about the changes that Pujols had made to his stride and how they might be impacting him. We also talked about how Torres should consider incorporating some Classic Albert elements into his own stride.

Two days later, I went down to the ballpark to talk to Andres before the game. While I was down there, Andres told Pujols about our conversation and the two of them then proceeded to discuss Pujols' stride.

Back to the Old Ways

Albert Pujols hit his most recent home run on June 19, 2011 and I happened to be at the game with my videocamera.

Albert Pujols Swing Video Clip

Albert Pujols
6/19/2011
Line Drive Home Run to Left Field Corner
60 Frames Per Second

The thing to notice in this clip is that Albert Pujols seems to have returned to where he started; it looks like he has abandoned the experiment that he conducted in April and May and is back to using the same stride that he used in 2005. I don't think it's a coincidence that, in the last few weeks prior to his injury, Albert Pujols was putting up numbers that were much more typical for him.

Update 9.12.2011

While Albert Pujols' numbers have improved significantly relative to the pace he was on in April and May, he has still struggled to get his batting average above .300. Some of that is due to the hole he dug himself into, but a large part of the problem is that Albert Pujols' stride isn't completely -- or consistently -- back.

Looking at Albert Pujols' at-bats over the past few weeks, I can see significant variability in his stride.

Albert Pujols Swing Video Clip

Albert Pujols
Home Run Derby Stride
Foul Ball
9/2/2011

Sometimes, as in the clip above, Albert Pujols uses his home run derby stride. Notice how, rather than just rotating up onto the point of his front toe, his front foot comes completely up into the air. Other times, as in the clip below, he uses his classic stride.

Albert Pujols Swing Video Clip

Albert Pujols
Classic Stride
Single to Left Field
9/2/2011

What's worse, Albert Pujols' stride isn't just varying from game to game. Instead, Albert Pujols' stride is varying from one swing to the next. The two clips above show two of Albert Pujols' swings, just two pitches apart during the same at-bat.

The result is that Albert Pujols is varying his timing from one swing to the next and it's harder for him to square up the ball. For instance, take the ball that Pujols hit late in the game on Friday night to score two runs against the Braves.

Albert Pujols Swing Video Clip

Albert Pujols
Home Run Derby Stride
Single to Right Field
9/9/2011

While he did get a hit, this may be the ugliest swing that I've ever seen Pujols put on a ball.

The reason the swing is so ugly is because he uses what, at first glance, looks like his classic stride but, in truth, is no better than his batting practice stride. The problem is that he can't properly time the planting of his front heel. In this case, because of the height of his stride he can't just drop his heel and go when he realizes that the pitch is coming in fast. Instead, his front foot hangs up in the air for too long and he's late. He was very lucky that the result was a hit down the line and not a foul ball.

I'm not sure what's going on or why.

Either Pujols is pressing, he's unaware of what he's doing with his stride, and/or he knows his swing is off and he's trying different things in an effort to find his swing again. Regardless, it's still creating problems for him and holding his batting average down.

Update 9.23.2011

I went to the game yesterday and managed to get a good clip of Pujols' home run to left field.

Albert Pujols Swing Video Clip

Albert Pujols
September 23, 2011
Home Run to Left Field
60 Frames Per Second

Albert Pujols Swing Video Clip

Albert Pujols
May 3, 2011
Fly Out to Right Center Field Warning Track
60 Frames Per Second

The interesting thing is to compare the clip of the home run to my clip of his fly out to the RCF warning track. Both clips were shot from the same section of the stadium and very clearly show the difference in Albert Pujols' stride between earlier on in the year and now. In particular, notice how, in the clip of the home run, Pujols does his classic stride and just rotates up onto the point of his front toe before dropping his heel and launching his swing.

Update 10.22.2011

Albert Pujols had one of the best nights of his career last night, hitting three back to back home runs during Game 3 of the 2011 World Series.

Albert Pujols Home Run Swing Video Clip

Albert Pujols
October 22, 2011
Home Run to Left Field Corner
First Home Run

The thing to notice is that, for this swing and all of Albert Pujols' swings in the game last night, he used his classic stride. Notice how he keeps the toe of his front foot on the ground during his entire stride and just internally rotates his front leg and rotates up onto the toe of his front foot before dropping his heel and starting his swing.

Update 4.17.2013

As I write this, the Angels are 4-10 and tied for last place in the American League West. That is causing considerable amounts of tension in the team, and likely no small amount of pressing.

That pressing is visible in the swing of Albert Pujols.

As I explain above, Albert Pujols' typical stride is a relatively unusual, and starkly simple, one in which he lifts his heel off the ground and then puts it back down pretty much where it started.

Albert Pujols Home Run Swing Video Clip

Albert Pujols
October 22, 2011
Home Run to Left Field Corner
First Home Run

However, at times, and especially in the past few years, Albert Pujols has played around with what I call his Home Run Derby Swing in which he lifts his front foot completely off the ground and then takes a forward step of a foot or so.

Albert Pujols' Swing

Albert Pujols
April 4, 2013
Double to Left Field Corner

The other day I obtained the clip above of Albert Pujols' game-winning hit. While the result of the swing was good, the way he went about it wasn't; instead of using his classic stride, Albert Pujols used a leg lift, the same leg lift which tends to rob him of adjustability and power.

While in the clip above he managed to get the barrel on the ball, notice how far out in front he is. What typically follows from Albert Pujols' use of this stride is reduced adjustability, especially to good off-speed pitching, and warning track power.

I discuss exactly why this happens, and why it is an issue, at length in my Advanced Hitting Mechanics webbook.

Update 4.20.2013

After watching a few mores games, and watching Albert Pujols' stride, you can see that Pujols stride is all over the place. In this clip from 4.19.2013, Pujols uses his classic stride. In this clip from 4.16.2013, Pujols uses a leg kick that I have never seen him use before. Obviously, changing strides in the middle of the season, and from at-bat to at-bat, is unlikely to produce good results.

Stepping in the Bucket?

A timing problem isn't the only difference that you can see if you compare clips of Albert Pujols from 2010 and 2011.

Albert Pujols Swing Video Clip

Albert Pujols
May 20, 2010
Small Timing Adjustment
60 Frames Per Second

If you compare the clip above of Albert Pujols from 2010 and the clip below of Albert Pujols from 2011, there is a suggestion that he is stepping in the bucket; stepping slightly toward third base rather than directly at the pitcher.

Albert Pujols Swing Video Clip

Albert Pujols
May 3, 2011
Ground Out to Second Base
60 Frames Per Second

While this difference, if any, is slight, one thing that stepping in the bucket can do is pull the bat head out of the strike zone just enough to cause the hitter to hit the ball more off of the end of the bat than at the sweet spot. Of course, one problem with having a stride, and one reason why hitters often move to a no-stride swing, is to deal with a problem with stepping in the bucket.

Albert Pujols Swing Video Clip

Albert Pujols
6/19/2011
Line Drive Home Run to Left Field Corner
60 Frames Per Second

Notice his stride in the clip above, which shows Albert Pujols' most recent home run. Instead of stepping in the bucket (even a few inches), Albert Pujols sets his front foot down in line with the pitcher. That will improve the likelihood that he will hit the ball off of the sweet spot of the bat.

The Secrets of Albert Pujols' Swing

For those who want to develop a comprehensive understanding of Albert Pujols' swing, I have put together a new eBook entitled The Secrets of Albert Pujols' Swing. It contains 650+ pages of photos and descriptions and is on SALE for just $19.95 from now until Opening Day, 2014.

For More Information

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Notes

[1] Prior to the 2010 season, Matt Holliday worked with Mark McGwire on his swing. One thing McGwire had Holliday do was change his stride. The problem was that this ruined Holliday's timing and adjustability. He had to abandon this change in order to return to his old form.

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