EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is a guest post from Michael Pina. Michael Pina is a writer for ESPN’s TrueHoop Network. His work has been published at The Classical and ScoreBig.com. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVPina.
There were many rational reasons why the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim signed Albert Pujols to a 10-year, $240 million contract five weeks before his 32nd birthday.
Most of them, unfortunately, are vaguely related to winning baseball games. Paying him $30 million in 2021, when Pujols would be 41 years old, has almost nothing to do with that.
Similar to just about every player in professional sports history who ever signed an outrageous nine figure contract at the age of 32, it’s nearly impossible for Pujols to live up to the public’s expectations.
Albert Pujols is no longer Albert Pujols. Let’s get that out of the way before going any further. Excusing the very real possibility that he isn’t a human being, the natural aging process will prevent him from ever scraping at the ceiling of another 50 homerun season again. Those days are long gone.
But Pujols isn’t yet at the stage in his career where any contract, no matter how large, should overshadow what he’s still able to accomplish on the field. He’s still productive, feared, respected, and, at times, lethal with a bat in his hands. Pitchers aren’t looking forward to facing him and whoever’s batting one spot up still appreciates all those good looking pitches.
But all that is a light year from stating he can’t play, or that he’s near the end. Pujols is still extremely dangerous when his heels dig deep in the right sight of home plate. His swing is still a calibrated coil; a well-timed discharge.
He still draws walks (as of April 30 he’d drawn 14 walks, half as many as league leader and MVP Joey Votto). Pujols has also been intentionally walked five times, which is second only to Ryan Braun (Pujols is the all-time leader in intentional walks among active players), and he still has incredible plate discipline. After striking out three times in his first four games of the season, Pujols ran off an impressive string of 11 straight games where he failed to strike out once.
His last season with the St. Louis Cardinals was his first season as a major league player batting below .300. It was his 11th year, which is absolutely stunning.
Despite being sandwiched between Mike Trout and Josh Hamilton (seriously, how insanely terrifying is a Trout, Pujols, Hamilton order? Based on reputation alone they’d be more than enough to give a struggling reliever heart palpitations) projections for Pujols entering the 2013 season weren’t the most uplifting thing of all time, but at the same time they’d be happily accepted by just about any hitter in the world.
According to ZiPS on Fangraphs, Pujols was marked down for 26 home runs, 74 runs, and 80 RBI this year. All would be the worst of his career by a semi-considerable margin. Digging deeper, his .359 on base percentage and .509 slugging percentage were also dramatic drop offs from his prime.
Batting average is far from the be all, end all statistic used to measure a hitter’s ability at the plate, but seeing Albert Pujols bat below .270, as he is right now, is anomalous. That may or may not be due to an ongoing battle with plantar fasciitis in his left foot (an injury that he triumphed over in years past), but regardless, other numbers show that today’s Pujols probably shouldn’t be judged against his own past.
His ground ball to fly ball ratio is way above his career average, with only 29.2% of balls he puts in play flying off the bat with any lift whatsoever (his career fly ball percentage is 39.9%). And pitchers appear to be throwing him slightly more sliders than normal. He’s always been patient at the plate, and it appears that attribute might need to be his best friend this season if he’s to maximize his still awesome physical ability.
Bottom line: The money should be a non-issue at this point. Pujols still has a ton to offer, but the expectations he still faces need to be tempered just a bit. He’s still a highly productive baseball player and one of Anaheim’s most potent weapons. His numbers will never again be what they once were, but that’s still good enough to be one of the best third hitters in baseball.